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Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Clouds, no matter what shape or size they take, are essential to life on Earth. During the day, they help to protect us from the sun’s intense heat. They serve as a blanket at night to keep us warm. They also provide precipitation and signal weather changes and patterns. Clouds, however, are not unique to our planet. Astrophysicists who study the atmospheres of other planets know that Mars, for example, has clouds similar to ours. Clouds are defined visible aerosols. Clouds are made of a minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space. The droplets and crystals could be made of water or other chemicals. In this article, we will have a deep look on how are clouds formed and what are the types of clouds by their shapes or height.

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Formation of clouds is a result of air saturation when it is cooled to its dew point, or when it gains enough moisture (usually in the form of water vapor) from an adjacent source to raise the dew point to the ambient temperature. They can be seen in the hemisphere of the Earth, which includes the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere. Nephology is the study of clouds and is part of the cloud physics branch of meteorology. A cloud is a suspended mass of water drops or ice crystals in the atmosphere. When water condenses in the sky, clouds form. Condensation allows us to see the water vapor. There can be various sizes and shapes of clouds. Clouds play an important role in the Earth’s weather and climate.

How much does a cloud weigh?

Those big white things floating overhead may appear light and fluffy, but they are quite heavy. A typical cloud has a volume of about 1 km3 and a density of about 1.003 kg per m3 – about 0.4% less than the surrounding air density, which is why they float. So, if you do the math, a typical cloud weighs somewhere around a million tons. Because air has mass, it must also have density, which is the weight for a specific volume, such as a cubic inch or cubic meter. Clouds must have weight and density if they are made up of particles. The density of the same volume of cloud material is less than the density of the same volume of dry air, which is why clouds float. Clouds float on air because moist air in clouds is less dense than dry air, just as oil floats on water because it is less dense.

We still need to figure out how much does a cloud weighs. To further complicate matters, the weight of clouds vary depending on how it is defined:

  • The weight of the cloud’s water droplets
  • The sum of the weights of the water droplets and the air (mostly above the cloud, pressing down)

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How are clouds formed?

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

You hang up a wet towel and return to find it dry. You put out a bowl of water for your dog, and when you return to it, the water level has dropped despite Woofy being nowhere near the bowl. What happened to the missing water? It vanished. That means some of the liquid water in the towel or bowl evaporated into the atmosphere as an invisible gas known as water vapor. The same thing happens all the time in oceans, lakes, rivers, swamps, swimming pools, and anywhere else water comes into contact with air.

Formation of clouds in the sky is due to water. Water may evaporate from the ground or migrate from other locations. Water vapor is always present in the sky in some quantity, but it is invisible. Clouds form when an area of air cools to the point where the water vapor condenses to liquid. The air is said to be “saturated” with water vapor at that point. The temperature of the air, where the cloud forms must be low enough for the water vapor to condense. Water will condense around particles such as dust, ice, or sea salt, which are referred to as condensation nuclei. The temperature, wind, and other environmental factors that influence formation of clouds determine the types of clouds that are formed then.

When water molecules absorb extra energy from a heat source, such as the Sun, or from colliding with other water molecules, liquid water transforms into a gas. These energetic molecules then escape as gas from the liquid water. The molecules absorb heat as they transition from liquid to gas, which they then release into the atmosphere. This helps to cool the water they leave behind. Depending on the temperature and weight of the air – or atmospheric pressure – in a given area, the air can only hold a certain amount of water vapor. The more water vapor the air can hold, the higher the temperature or atmospheric pressure. When a given volume of air contains all of the water vapor it can, it is said to be “saturated.”

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

What happens when a saturated volume of air cools or atmospheric pressure falls? The air can no longer hold all of that water vapor. The excess converts from a gas to a liquid or solid (ice). The process of water changing from a gas to a liquid is known as “condensation,” and the process of a gas changing directly into a solid is known as “deposition.” Clouds form as a result of these two processes. Condensation occurs as a result of tiny particles floating in the air, such as dust, salt crystals from sea spray, bacteria, or even volcanic ash. These particles serve as surfaces for water vapor to condensate into liquid droplets or ice crystals. A cloud is a large accumulation of such droplets or ice crystals.

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Clouds are typically thought to form in the sky, but when conditions are favorable, a cloud can form at ground level as well. Then it’s referred to as “fog.” You’ve walked through a cloud if you’ve ever walked through fog. Although the basic concept of formation of clouds is simple, there is much more to learn.

Types of clouds

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Clouds are classified primarily based on two factors: location and shape. High clouds form several kilometers above the earth’s surface, with the exact height determined by the temperatures at the location where they form. Low clouds typically form within a few kilometers of the Earth’s surface. In fact, low clouds can form that are so close to the ground that they are called fog. Between low and high clouds, middle-level clouds form. How many different types of clouds are there? Cloud types can be classified into three levels, each with its own main group of clouds. There are ten basic types of clouds in total. Because these clouds are the most common and representative of each altitude class, some places simply classify clouds as cirrus, stratus, and cumulus.

  • Cirrocumulus, cirrus, and cirrostratus are the high-level clouds (5-13 km).
  • Clouds in the mid-levels (2-7 km): altocumulus, altostratus, and nimbostratus.
  • Stratocumulus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, and stratocumulus are examples of low-level clouds (0-2 km).

In general, there are ten main types of clouds that you’ll see in the sky, and we’ll go over each of them below.

Cirrus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Cirrus clouds are one of the most common types of clouds that can be seen throughout the year. They’re thin and wispy, with a silky sheen to them. Cirrus clouds are always composed of ice crystals, the degree of separation of which determines how transparent the cirrus is. Cirrus clouds are distinguished from other types of clouds by their bright yellow or red coloration before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively. Cirrus clouds appeared much earlier than other clouds and faded much later.

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Cirrocumulus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Cirrocumulus clouds are among the most beautiful in the sky. These typically form around 5 km above the surface as small white fluff patterns that spread out for miles and miles across the sky. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘mackerel skies’ because they can have a greyish color that makes the clouds look like fish scales. Cirrocumulus clouds have characteristics of both cumulus and cirrus clouds, but they are not to be confused with altocumulus clouds. While the two may appear similar, cirrocumulus lacks shading and some parts of altocumulus are darker than others. During a warm frontal system, cirrocumulus cloud follows cirrus cloud. What’s important to remember about cirrocumulus clouds is that they never produce rain (but can indicate cold weather), and they don’t interact with other types of clouds to form larger cloud structures.

Cirrostratus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Cirrostratus clouds have a sheet-like appearance, resembling a curly blanket covering the sky. They’re quite translucent, allowing the sun or moon to shine through. Their color ranges from light grey to white, and the thickness of the fibrous bands varies greatly. Purely white cirrostratus clouds indicate that moisture has been stored, indicating the presence of a warm frontal system. Cirrostratus clouds are featured in some of the best cloud photographs because the ice crystals beautifully refract light from the sun or moon, creating a dazzling halo effect. If cirrostratus clouds descend to a lower altitude, they can transform into altostratus clouds. Cirrostratus clouds almost always move westward, which is an interesting fact. The presence of them usually indicates that rain will fall within the next 24 hours.

Altocumulus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Because altocumulus clouds form at lower altitudes, they are mostly made of water droplets, though they may contain ice crystals when they form higher up. They usually appear between lower stratus clouds and higher cirrus clouds, and they usually come before altostratus when a warm frontal system approaches. When altocumulus appears alongside another cloud type, a storm is likely to follow. In most parts of the world, altocumulus clouds are common. Convection is usually responsible for their growth, which occurs when damp air rises and mixes with descending dry air. Altocumulus clouds can form in conjunction with other types of clouds, such as cumulonimbus. The amount of rain expected from altocumulus ranges from light to moderate.

Altostratus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Altostratus can cover thousands of square miles and is strongly associated with light rain or snow. Though they are not capable of producing heavy rain, altostratus clouds frequently morph into nimbostratus clouds, which are densely packed with moisture and can deliver a pounding. They are uniformly grey, smooth, and featureless, which is why they are sometimes referred to as ‘boring clouds.’ This type of cloud is commonly seen preceding nimbostratus clouds in an advancing warm frontal system.

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Nimbostratus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Nimbostratus is derived from the Latin words nimbus, which means “rain,” and stratus, which means “spread out.” These dark clouds are heavy rain bearers, forming thick and dark layers of clouds that can completely block out the sun. Despite belonging to the middle-level category, they may occasionally descend to lower altitudes. Nimbostratus clouds form as a result of the gradual accumulation of moist air over a large area as the warm frontal system lifts the warm and moist air higher into the atmosphere, where it condenses. As previously stated, nimbostratus clouds can form from other types of clouds, such as descending altostratus. Nimbostratus can form as a result of cumulonimbus clouds spreading.

Stratus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Stratus clouds are made up of many thin layers of clouds that cover a large area of the sky. When mist or fog forms close to the ground, it is simply mist or fog. The long horizontal layers of cloud with a fog-like appearance distinguishes a stratus cloud. Large air masses rise to the atmosphere and condense, forming clouds. In terms of rainfall, these are fairly benign, producing light showers or even light snow if temperatures drop below freezing. If enough moisture is retained at the ground level, the cloud can change into a nimbostratus. Stratus clouds are common all over the world, but they are most common in coastal and mountainous areas.

Cumulus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

It is the most recognizable of all cloud types. These adorable ‘cotton piles’ form a large mass with a well-defined rounded edge, explaining the name ‘cumulus,’ which is Latin for ‘heap.’ Cumulus clouds are forming. Cumulus clouds are a sign of good weather, though they may occasionally release rain in the form of a light shower. Except for the Polar Regions, they can be found almost anywhere on the planet.

Cumulonimbus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Cumulonimbus clouds are fluffy and white, like cumulus clouds, but they are much larger. It is a vertically developing type of cloud with a base that can grow from one to eight kilometres in length, hence the name “tower cloud.” Cumulonimbus is a low-level and high-level cloud for the same reason. The cloud is mostly made of water droplets at the low-altitude base, but ice crystals dominate at the high-altitude summit. Rain comes and goes with this cloud, but when it does, it can come down in torrents. When you see a cumulonimbus cloud, you know there’s a thunderstorm on the way. Cumulonimbus clouds are most common in the afternoons of summer and spring, when the Earth’s surface emits heat.

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Stratocumulus

Types of Clouds: How are Clouds Formed?

Stratocumulus has the appearance of a thick white blanket of stretched out cotton. They resemble cumulus clouds, but they are much larger. The bottom of the cloud is well-defined and flat, but the top of the cloud is ragged due to convection with the cloud itself. A stratocumulus cloud will have light to dark grey hues depending on its thickness. When people see these clouds, they often believe rain is on the way. In reality, you’ll be lucky to get more than a light drizzle from them.

What causes rain exactly?

The majority of the water in clouds is in very small droplets, but those droplets can sometimes collect more water. Then they grow into bigger drops. When this happens, gravity causes them to fall faster through the air. Rain is falling water drops. When the temperature drops, the water may condense into snowflakes. Clouds can also produce freezing rain or sleet. These occur when snow melts on its way to the ground but then becomes colder again. During more severe weather, hail falls. Rain and snow move around in the sky due to air currents. They become colder and turn into ice as they move. The ice chunks grow larger as they move. They eventually fall to the ground as hail.

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