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Cool Cloud Formations!

Updated on October 1, 2014
Clouds are Cool
Clouds are Cool | Source

What are clouds?

What clouds are made of? How are clouds made? What are the different types of cloud formation? These questions are often asked by kids as they become curious about the world around them, and it can be hard to explain!

This is a simple guide to help adults and children understand the different types of cloud, how they form and how each type of cloud affects our weather.

Clouds may often hide the sun but there are so many wonderful shapes and sizes, from the night shining cloud, to the all powerful supercell! How many of these weird clouds have you seen?

I hope you will enjoy this basic guide to clouds and find the cloud photos here as fascinating as I do!

The 4 major cloud types

In a nutshell, the 4 major cloud types are:

1. Cirrus

2. Cumulus

3. Stratus

4. Nimbus

Nephology - the physics of clouds

How clouds are made

Before we look at the various types of cloud, let's begin with how clouds are formed. Clouds are a combination of water vapour or ice crystals and microscopic dust particles that are found in rising warm air. These billions of tiny droplets of water or ice are so light they float in the Earth's Troposphere - causing the clouds you see everyday.

In 1802 Luke Howard, a British amateur meteorologist, presented a paper called "On the Modification of Clouds", a system in which clouds should be classified. This system is still used to this day and divides clouds into two categories, layered and convective, which indicates at what altitude they can be found and the processes that form them.

Layered cloud - these have a flattened appearance and not much vertical height.

Convective cloud - are clouds produced by pockets of warm air thermals rising directly from the surface below.

Each cloud belongs to a family (genus): high, medium, low and vertical. Within each family there are species for clouds which distinguishes their appearances and varieties.Clouds are measured at their base height rather than from the top of the cloud.

Cloud types
Cloud types | Source

Make a cloud in a bottle!

Vertical cloud formations

Identifying Cumulus, Cumulonimbus and Supercell clouds

Cumulus clouds

At an altitude of about 2000 - 6000 feet, the Cumulus are one of the most common with flat bases and fluffy cotton wool cauliflower like tops that grow vertically. Cumulus are formed by a convection of air pushing a thermal of hot air upwards, as it rises it cools, expands and the water vapour condenses into tiny cloud droplets. If these clouds don't have too much vertical growth, fair weather is ahead. However, these benign looking clouds can develop into the more ominous Congestus Cumulus, which can then grow on into the awesome Cumulonimbus.

Fluffy cumulus clouds
Fluffy cumulus clouds | Source

Cumulonimbus cloud - the king of clouds

This gigantic cloud is responsible for most types of extreme weather, such as thunder storms, heavy rain, hail, snow and tornadoes. These dense clouds can tower up to 14 miles in height, when a cumulonimbus reaches the troposphere the high winds flatten the top which creates an anvil shape. These clouds can been seen in groups or alone and are most common in tropical or temperate regions. Cumulonimbus can hold up to half a million tons of water. They can grow to form a Supercell Cloud which has the potential to be the most severe of thunderstorms - the photo below is of a Supercell, very scary!

Anvil shaped cumulonimbus cloud
Anvil shaped cumulonimbus cloud | Source
Stratocumulus Clouds
Stratocumulus Clouds | Source

Low cloud types - What clouds make it rain?


These grey lumpy clouds look like flattened cumulus and they appear in either horizontal layers of patches, rows or masses. They can produce limited drizzle and a little light rain, and can cover the whole sky for many hundreds of miles. These clouds are responsible for bringing a winter gloom that hangs around for days.

Nimbostratus - the rain cloud

Covering the whole sky in a grey blanket, nimbostratus most commonly produce persistent moderate to heavy rain or snow. If you want to find out about how rain happens, visit my page Rain! Glorious Rain! to learn more!

Stratus cloud - the drizzly cloud.

When a large air mass cools at the same time, this creates a Stratus Cloud. These clouds are a featureless horizontal grey mass and the lowest forming. Fog and mist are Stratus clouds at ground level, but the highest can reach is is 6,500 feet when it becomes a "cloudy day".

Altostratus Clouds
Altostratus Clouds | Source

Middle cloud formations - clouds that hide the sun

Altostratus - the boring cloud!

When the Stratus clouds rise about 6500 feet it becomes the Altostratus. This flat mass belongs to the middle level of clouds, the thicker the cloud becomes the grayer it gets. It is a very dull looking cloud, but always looks lovely during a sunset as you can see from the image on the right.


If there is a humid morning, you may see these grayish, puffy clouds which often precede a thunderstorm. They can look like parallel bands or rolling masses.

Cirrocumulus | Source

High level cloud types - clouds formed from ice crystals


When you see these pretty puffy clouds sailing high, fair weather is forecast for tomorrow. These are seen in rows and form patterns like popcorn, cirrocumulus can also form a pattern termed "a mackerel sky" due to the fish scale effect they produce! Cirrostratus can mean rain or snow within the next day.

Cirrus clouds

These are the highest clouds at 16,500 to 45,000 feet and are composed of tiny ice particles. They make wonderful wispy shapes due to the 100 - 150 mph fluctuating winds at that height. Cirrus mean fair weather ahead and are nicknamed "mare's tails".

Cirrus Clouds
Cirrus Clouds | Source


Contrails are artificial clouds made from ice particles produced from the aerosols from aircraft exhaust. They are produced in very cold temperatures at -40 degrees and at high altitudes of 26,000 feet.

Contrail from a space shuttle launch

Contrails | Source

Weird cloud formations....have you seen any of these rare clouds?

Morning Glory cloud

This is a roll cloud which can reach 1000 km long and 1-2km high, this rare cloud is found in North Australia in the Gulf Carpentaria. The Morning Glory is accompanied by short squalls of wind, the air at the front of the roll pushes up, with the air at the rear of the cloud sinks. Because of this "cloud surfers", glider pilots can ride these clouds like waves.

Roll clouds
Roll clouds | Source

Watch people cloud surfing roll clouds!

Noctilucent clouds

These absolutely beautiful and ethereal clouds are seen on the very edges of the world's atmosphere, in the mesosphere. Noctilucent clouds look like thin spidery blue veins against the twilight sky, glowing electric silver and blue - hence their nickname "night shining clouds". So what are Noctilucent Clouds? Some scientists believe that they are a sign of global warming, others believe that it could be space dust in the higher reaches of the mesosphere catching the rays of the sun.

Noctilucent clouds
Noctilucent clouds | Source

Undulatus Asperatus cloud

This surreal looking cloud is a new discovery, the first since 1951! This has been put forward for official classification by the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It looks scary, but these clouds generally follow after a storm rather than become one. The wave affect comes from turbulent air masses pushing cloud into shapes like rough waves on the sea.

Undulatus Asperatus
Undulatus Asperatus | Source

The Lenticular cloud

This is an Altocumulus Lenticularis, a rare lens-shaped cloud that forms when moist air flows over mountains. Some people believe that aliens hide in these clouds or that Lenticular clouds are actually flying saucers!

Lenticular cloud
Lenticular cloud | Source

The Nacreous cloud

This cloud occurs in the polar regions during winter at a very high altitude of 15,000 to 25,000 metres. They form at low temperatures and although beautiful Nacreous clouds contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer. These clouds convert benign chlorine in the atmosphere into a destructive form and also by removing the nitrogen compounds that help prevent the chlorine becoming reactive. These clouds are becoming more common in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic.

Nacreous cloud
Nacreous cloud | Source

Mammatus clouds

Mammatus comes from the Latin, meaning "mammary" because of their bosomy shape! Mammatus clouds look like they are bringing apocalyptic weather, but they are actually harmless. Mammatus form of often on the underside of an anvil cumulonimbus cloud, after the storm has passed. The ice crystals at the top of the anvil start to sink as they become heavier than the surrounding air. The base of a cloud is flat because all moisture evaporates at that level, but the ice crystals they are still too large to melt, so they sink further - and this creates the mammatus pockets.

Mammatus clouds
Mammatus clouds | Source

Do you love to watch the clouds? Or do clouds ruin your day?!

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    • Thomo85 profile image

      Thomo85 4 years ago

      I love cloud formations they certainly make some weird and wonderful shapes.

    • Loretta L profile image

      Loretta Livingstone 4 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

      I recently started taking pictures of the sky for my books. I have some fabulous cloud photographs now, and enjoyed looking at your pictures.

    • ramonabeckbritman profile image

      ramonabeckbritman 4 years ago

      Nice! I've always likes clouds and the wonderful shapes they make.

    • VspaBotanicals profile image

      VspaBotanicals 4 years ago

      I love watching clouds. I can't wait to experience some spectacular ones like there are on this lens! Thank you for another sensational lens!

    • Lynne-Modranski profile image

      Lynne Modranski 4 years ago from Ohio

      Love those MOrning glory clouds!

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