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Know Your Clouds (With Photos)

Updated on September 24, 2015
Clouds Give A Sense Of Depth To The Sky
Clouds Give A Sense Of Depth To The Sky | Source

Cloud Basics

Do you know very much about clouds?

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I've often wondered what the different types of clouds were, but for some reason never looked them up.

Earlier today I noticed some awesome clouds in the sky, yet I had no way to describe them, except by trying to explain what they looked like. If I'd known what type of cloud they were, or at least had something to go on, it would have made my Google search that much easier.

Before getting into the different cloud types though, I think it's important to have a general grasp of what clouds are and how they form.

Cloud Formation Diagram
Cloud Formation Diagram | Source
  • What Are Clouds?

Clouds are simply a large collection of tiny water droplets or ice crystals that are so light they can float in air.

  • How Do Clouds Form?

All air contains water, and near the ground it's usually in the form of an invisible gas called water vapor. The air is warmed by the sun, and as the warm air rises, it expands and cools. Since cool air can't hold as much water vapor as warm air, the air becomes saturated (reaches its dew point) and can't hold any more water. The excess water vapor condenses onto tiny pieces of dust, ice, or salt that are floating in the air, which forms small droplets of water. When billions of these droplets come together, a cloud is formed.

  • Why Do Clouds Form At Different Heights?

The amount of water vapor available, the temperature at that altitude, the wind, and other factors determine whether clouds form, and also which types will form. The most basic factor, though, is at what height the air reaches its dew point and becomes saturated. As we'll see below, certain criteria must exist for each specific cloud type to develop.

Cloud Families

General Cloud Types
General Cloud Types | Source

Clouds are divided into four families, with each family representing a different height in the troposphere.

The troposphere is the lowest portion of the Earth's atmosphere. This area contains 99% of the atmosphere's water vapor, which is what clouds are made of.

The four main cloud types are:

  • Stratus: Low level clouds (altitudes of 0-1 mi / 0-2 km)
  • Alto: Medium level clouds (altitudes of 1-4 mi / 2-7 km)
  • Cirrus: High level clouds (altitudes of 3-8 mi / 5-13 km)
  • Clouds with vertical development (altitudes of 0-8 mi / 0-13 km)

Low Level Clouds (Stratus)

Altitudes of 0-1 mi / 0-2 km (Up to 6,500 feet)

Stratus Nebulosus
Stratus Nebulosus | Source
  • Stratus Clouds (St)

Flat, hazy, featureless, evenly gray, low layer clouds that may produce fog, light drizzle, or snow

Variations and sub-species: fractus (frazzled); nebulosus (fog, veil-like); opacus (dark); translucidus (translucent); undulatus (wavelike); and praecipitatio (with precipitation)

Stratocumulus Perlucidus
Stratocumulus Perlucidus | Source
  • Stratocumulus Clouds (Sc)

Large, dark, rounded clouds that form groups, lines, or waves

Variations and sub-species: castellanus (turret-like); duplicatus (multi-layered); lenticularis (lens-shaped); stratiformis (layered); lacunosus (perforated, round holes); opacus (dark); perlucidus (transparent); radiatus (parallel bands); translucidus (translucent); undulatus (wavelike); mamma (rounded growths on bottom side of cloud); praecipitatio (with precipitation); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Medium Level Clouds (Alto)

Altitudes of 1-4 mi / 2-7 km (From 6,500 feet to 18,000 feet)

Altostratus Undulatus
Altostratus Undulatus | Source
  • Altostratus Clouds (As)

Dense, uniform, gray sheetlike clouds that let the sun shine through either a little bit or not at all

Variations and sub-species: duplicatus (multi-level); opacus (dark); radiatus (parallel bands); translucidus (translucent); undulatus (wavelike); mamma (rounded growths on bottom side of cloud); pannus (with frazzles); praecipitatio (with precipitation); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Altocumulus Floccus with line of Castellanus
Altocumulus Floccus with line of Castellanus | Source
  • Altocumulus Clouds (Ac)

Gray, compound bundles, globular masses, or rolls of clouds in layers or patches

Variations and sub-species: castellanus (turret-like); duplicatus (multi-level); floccus (flaked puffy); lenticularis (lens-shaped); stratiformis (layered); lacunosus (perforated, round holes); opacus (opaque); perlucidus (transparent); radiatus (parallel bands); translucidus (translucent); undulatus (wavelike); mamma (rounded growths on bottom side of cloud); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

High Level Clouds (Cirrus)

Altitudes of 3-8 mi / 5-13 km (Above 18,000 feet)

Cirrus Uncinus
Cirrus Uncinus | Source
  • Cirrus (Ci)

Thin, wispy, threadlike, white feathery clouds of ice crystals that resemble ringlets or hair curls

Variations and sub-species: castellanus (turret-like); duplicatus (multi-level); fibratus (fibrous); floccus (flaked puffy); intortus (interlaced); spissatus (dense); uncinus (hooked); radiatus (parallel bands); vertebratus (fishbone-like); and mamma (rounded growths on bottom side of cloud)

Cirrostratus at night
Cirrostratus at night | Source
  • Cirrostratus (Cs)

Thin, uniform, translucent veil of ice crystal clouds that are difficult to detect, except when they form a halo around the sun or moon

Variations and sub-species: duplicatus (multi-level); fibratus (fibrous); nebulosus (fog, veil-like);and undulatus (wavelike)

Cirrocumulus Floccus
Cirrocumulus Floccus | Source
  • Cirrocumulus (Cc)

Small, fleecy clouds made of ice crystals, often forming large patches

Variations and sub-species: castellanus (turret-like); floccus (flaked puffy); lenticularis (lens-shaped); stratiformis (layered); lacunosus (perforated, round holes); undulatus (wavelike); mamma (rounded growths on bottom side of cloud); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Clouds With Vertical Development

Altitudes of 0-8 mi / 0-13 km (Troposphere)

Cumulus | Source
  • Cumulus (Cu)

Puffy, cotton-like, heaped white clouds with a flat base that may appear alone, in lines, or in clusters

Variations and sub-species: arcus (horizontal arc); congestus (huge, towered); fractus (frazzled); humilis (low); mediocris (moderate); radiatus (parallel bands); pannus (with frazzles); pileus (with cap); praecipitatio (with precipitation); tuba (funnel cloud or tornado); velum (with veil); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Cumulonimbus | Source
  • Cumulonimbus (Cb)

Towering, tall, dense, vertical clouds often associated with thunderstorms, sometimes called a thunderhead

Variations and sub-species: arcus (horizontal arc); calvus (smooth); capillatus (haired, fibrous); incus (anvil shaped); pileus (with cap); tuba (funnel cloud or tornado); velum (with veil); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Nimbostratus | Source
  • Nimbostratus (Ns)

Gray, indistinct, dark, and formless clouds that produce precipitation

Variations and sub-species: pannus (with frazzles); praecipitatio (with precipitation); and virga (shaft of precipitation)

Special Cloud Types

These are cloud formations that are often rare, occurring only in very specific and narrow circumstances. They are often the most fantastic displays, as you will see below.

Arcus Shelf
Arcus Shelf | Source
Arcus Roll
Arcus Roll | Source
  • Arcus

Low, horizontal, arced clouds, including roll clouds and shelf clouds.

Shelf clouds are low, horizontal, wedge shaped, arced clouds that are generally associated with the front of a thunderstorm.

Roll clouds are long, tube-like clouds often associated with cold sea breezes or cold fronts.

Stratocumulus Undulatus Asperatus
Stratocumulus Undulatus Asperatus | Source
  • Asperatus

This type of cloud formation is one of the most amazing and awe-inspiring cloud types, often resembling rippled cloth or intricately textured, highly unusual flowing patterns.

Undulatus Asperatus, as it's often called, is the newest cloud type to be classified. After 30 years of study, it was officially considered a new type of cloud formation in 2009.

They are common in the Great Plains of the United States, often following thunderstorms.

Circumhorizontal Arc
Circumhorizontal Arc | Source
  • Circumhorizontal Arc

This is a type of cloud phenomenon that often makes people do a double-take to make sure they just saw what they think they saw.

Sometimes called Fire Rainbows, these are neither rainbows, nor do they have anything to do with fire. They are an optical phenomenon involving the reflection of the sun off of ice crystals.

The sun must be high in the sky, high level (cirrus) clouds must be present, and in addition, the cirrus clouds must contain plate-shaped ice crystals. When all of these factors combine, a rainbow-colored halo forms in the clouds.

Cumulonimbus Incus
Cumulonimbus Incus | Source
  • Incus

Cumulonimbus Incus is a cloud in the shape of an anvil or mushroom cloud.

This is a cumulonimbus cloud that has reached stratospheric stability, meaning that it's reached a point where the air ceases to continue cooling as the cloud increases in height.

These are considered mature thunderstorm cloud formations, often producing dangerous weather like lightning, hail, heavy rain, flash floods, and gale force winds.

Altocumulus Lenticularis
Altocumulus Lenticularis | Source
  • Lenticular

These clouds are stationary and take the shape of a rounded lens or almond; some would even say they sort of resemble a UFO.

They're often formed perpendicular to the wind direction and are associated with mountains.

Large standing waves sometimes form when moist air passes over mountain ranges. If the crests of the waves correspond with a drop in temperature to the dew point (the temperature at which water condenses to form clouds), the outcome is often a lenticular cloud formation.

Mammatocumulus | Source
  • Mammatus

Sometimes also called Mammatocumulus, the literal translation is "mammary cloud" or "breast cloud." The formations are rounded growths, or pouches, hanging on the underside of the clouds. The shape is similar to a human breast (or as close as clouds come, anyway.)

These cloud formations are associated with heavy thunderstorms, and most often are found under altocumulus, altostratus, stratocumulus, and cirrus clouds, in addition to volcanic ash clouds.

Polar Mesospheric
Polar Mesospheric | Source
  • Polar Mesospheric

These are known as noctilucent (night) clouds and are most easily observed from space, where they can be seen "edge-on" against a darker background.

The peak season for this type of formation is 20 days after the summer solstice in both hemispheres.

These formations increase in both brightness and frequency with increasing latitude (from 60 to 85 degrees.)

Vote For Your Favorite

Which Special Cloud Formation Is Your Favorite?

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Copyright © 2012 Faceless39. All rights reserved.


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, I was a science teacher so naturally I am going to read this hub! Great job; you presented the information in a clear and concise way that anyone could understand.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 5 years ago from Lubbock, TX

      Altocumulus clouds! I never knew what they were really called. When I was a little girl, I called them popcorn clouds and it just stuck. Thanks for a great Hub!

    • krosch profile image

      krosch 5 years ago

      A nice read, cool to know a little more about clouds as we gaze up in the sky! :)

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 5 years ago

      Thanks for a very comprehensive refresher course. I used to know all about clouds.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thank you all for your enjoyable comments!

      @Georgie, I've always called them popcorn clouds as well. And honestly, I'll probably continue lol.

      What's amazing is this is barely the tip of the iceberg; there appears to be hundreds of cloud types and variations. Amazing!

    • Parks McCants profile image

      Parks McCants 5 years ago from Eugene Oregon U.S.A.

      Thank you. Very informative as well as well written. Great for us lazy sky watchers...

    • profile image

      Kieran Gracie 5 years ago

      Here in Madeira we often see the arcus roll cloud formations. Very impressive sight, stretching miles out in to the Atlantic from the eastern tip if the island. Loved your Hub, Faceless39, and thank you for all this interesting information. Voted accordingly.

    • profile image

      Sueswan 5 years ago

      I didn't know there were so many types of clouds. I find watching clouds very relaxing.

      Voted up and awesome.

    • internpete profile image

      Peter V 5 years ago from At the Beach in Florida

      Wow, what great info! Brought back memories of learning about clouds in high school! Voted up!

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      I remember laying in the grass as a kid, not a care in the world, no concept of time, looking up at the clouds and watching them go by. I've never lost touch with that slow, meditative sky watching--day and night.

      Thanks so much for your kind comments. Nature is truly amazing and awe-inspiring!

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 5 years ago from West Virginia

      Kate, voted up and all across but funny. Awesome article. I was going to study the weather at one point in my life. I love the weather, everything about it. I can appreciate the research and hard work on this article of yours. Great job Kate! Loved all the pics and vast useful information. Will share with a tweet.

    • profile image

      aHappierLife 4 years ago


      I had never thoughts that there are so many different clouds formations, I have never seen the rainbow, neither the mushroom ones.

      Very well written science in elementary and easy understandable terms!

      Finally I know now all steps, from water to clouds, I am glad I read this hub

      I vote it awesome and cool!!

      Thanks Kate

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Weather is an awesome and awe-inspiring phenomenon. Even when I understand the science, it seems magical and mysterious.

      I'm so glad you liked reading and learning more about clouds. They're a fascinating part of this planet, and are so often overlooked. It's good to stop and smell the flowers (or watch the clouds go by!)

      Thanks for the wonderful comments!

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      Great collection of photos Faceless, with explanations of the clouds' names and the weather patterns associated with them. Isn't it strange how we are so ignorant of clouds - we see them every single day and yet how many of us know anything much about them? We just take them for granted I guess. For this reason, thanks for this article. Voted up. Alun.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      My ignorance of clouds is exactly what got me researching what they're all about. They're such amazing, ever-changing works of art. It's astounding how people flit here and there every day and never once look up. Thanks for looking!

    • ratnaveera profile image

      ratnaveera 4 years ago from Cumbum

      Really Great Informative Hub on Clouds! It is amazing to know about various types of clouds that we could see in our daily life. You have given great definitions for them with lovely photos. I think this could be an ultimate article to know every thing about clouds. Thank you so much for this wonderful work! Faceless39

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Great summary of the cloud types. I learned a lot.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 16 months ago from SW England

      Great explanations and stunning photos. The cirrus clouds are often referred to as 'mares' tails' here in Britain; I think those are my favourite as they're whispy but sadly they often herald rain!

      I enjoyed reading this fascinating lesson.


    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 16 months ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thanks so much for reading and enjoying this cloud hub! I remember driving one day and noticing some Circumhorizontal Arc clouds, which look like little wisps of rainbow. I thought I was going crazy, so looked it up when I got home and realized a whole world of clouds I didn't know existed!! :)

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