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Atmosphere Academy: those clouds we see in the sky

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When you look up at the sky, have you ever attempted to count the number of clouds you see? How about the cloud types? It’s a lot harder than you think. Class is in session at Pine Valley Elementary School.

Cloud identification is one of those topics that can get complicated rather quickly. To help us keep everything straight, meteorologists often divide clouds into 3 broad categories: high clouds, middle clouds, and lows clouds.

For high clouds, the base of the cloud usually forms between 16,000 ft and 50,000 feet. These clouds are often thin or wispy in appearance and they usually indicate quiet weather in the short-term. Types of high clouds include cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus.

For middle clouds, the base of the cloud forms between 6,000 feet and 23,000 feet. These clouds can vary widely in appearance, from flat/uniform shapes to “cotton candy” texture. Types of middle clouds include altostratus and altocumulus.

Low clouds have a base that forms at 6,500 feet or less. These clouds also can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from bright cotton ball appearance to dark, continuous layers. Types of low clouds include stratus, cumulus, and cumulonimbus.

By the way, the addition of nimbo or nimbus to a cloud name indicates that the cloud is producing rain.

Of course, there are cloud types that fall outside the traditional 3 tier identification system. These formations are specific to certain types of weather. For example, “wall clouds” represent the lowering of the rain-free base of a thunderstorm, and often signal tornado formation. A “shelf cloud” represents the leading edge of strong winds in advance of a thunderstorm.
As you can see, the list of cloud formation seems endless; just one more reason meteorologists always have to stay on top of things.

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When you look up at the sky, have you ever attempted to count the number of clouds you see? How about the cloud types? It’s a lot harder than you think. Class is in session at Pine Valley Elementary School.

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