Clouds Explained


Click HERE to view pictures of the various type of clouds.

What are Clouds?
A cloud is a visible mass of droplets or frozen crystals floating in the atmosphere above the surface of the Earth or another planetary body. A cloud is also a visible mass attracted by gravity (clouds can also occur as masses of material in interstellar space, where they are called interstellar clouds and nebulae.) The branch of meteorology in which clouds are studied is nephology or cloud physics.

On Earth the condensing substance is typically water vapor, which forms small droplets of ice crystals, typically 0.01 mm in diameter. When surrounded by billions of other droplets or crystals they become visible as clouds. Dense deep clouds exhibit a high reflectance (70% to 95%) throughout the visible range of wavelengths: they thus appear white, at least from the top. Cloud droplets tend to scatter light efficiently, so that the intensity of the solar radiation decreases with depth into the gases, hence the gray or even sometimes dark appearance of the clouds at their base. Thin clouds may appear to have acquired the color of their environment or background, and clouds illuminated by non-white light, such as during sunrise or sunset, may be colored accordingly. In the near-infrared range, clouds would appear darker because the water that constitutes the cloud droplets strongly absorbs solar radiation at those wavelengths.

Cloud Formation and Properties
Clouds may be formed by several different mechanisms:

  1. Water vapor in the air condenses when the air is cooled below its saturation point. This happens when the air comes into contact with a cold surface or a surface that is cooling by radiation, or the air is cooled by adiabatic expansion (rising). This can happen:
    • along warm and cold fronts (frontal lift);
    • where air flows up the side of a mountain and cools as it rises (orographic lift);
    • by the convection caused by the warming of a surface by insolation (diurnal heating);
    • when warm air blows over a colder surface, such as a cool body of water.
  2. Clouds can be formed when two air masses below saturation point mix. Examples are: the condensation of vapor in human breath on a cold day, aircraft contrails, and Arctic sea smoke.
  3. The air stays the same temperature but absorbs more water vapor into it until it reaches saturation point.
The water in a typical cloud can have a mass of up to several million tonnes. The volume of a cloud is correspondingly high and the net density of the relatively warm air holding the droplets is low enough that air currents below and within the cloud are capable of keeping it suspended.

Conditions inside a cloud are not static: water droplets are constantly forming and re-evaporating. A typical cloud droplet has a radius on the order of 1 x 10-5 m and a terminal velocity of about 1-3 cm/s. This gives these droplets plenty of time to re-evaporate as they fall into the warmer air beneath the cloud.

Most water droplets are formed when water vapor condenses around a condensation nucleus, such as a tiny particle of smoke, dust, ash or salt. In supersaturated conditions, water droplets may act as condensation nuclei.

Water droplets large enough to fall to the ground are produced in two ways. The most important means is through the Bergeron Process, theorized by Tor Bergeron, in which supercooled water droplets and ice crystals in a cloud interact to produce the rapid growth of ice crystals; these crystals precipitate from the cloud and melt as they fall. This process typically takes place in clouds with tops cooler than -15° C.

The second most important process is the collision and wake capture process, occurring in clouds with warmer tops, in which the collision of rising and falling water droplets produces larger and larger droplets, which are eventually heavy enough to overcome air currents in the cloud and the updraft beneath it and fall as rain. As a droplet falls through the smaller droplets that surround it, it produces a "wake" which draws some of the smaller droplets into collisions, perpetuating the process. This method of raindrop production is the primary mechanism in low stratiform clouds and small cumulus clouds in trade winds and tropical regions and produces raindrops of several millimeters diameter.

The actual form of the cloud created depends on the strength of the uplift and on air stability. In unstable conditions, convection dominates, creating vertically developed clouds. Stable air produces horizontally homogeneous clouds. Frontal uplift creates various cloud forms depending on the composition of the front (ana-type or kata-type warm or cold front). Orographic uplift also creates variable cloud forms depending on air stability, although cap cloud and wave clouds are specific to orographic clouds.

Cloud Colors
The color of a cloud, as seen from the Earth, tells much about what is going on inside the cloud. Clouds form when relatively warm air containing water vapor is lighter than its surrounding air and this causes it to rise. As it rises it cools and the vapor condenses out of the air as micro-droplets. These tiny particles of water are relatively densely packed and sunlight cannot penetrate far into the cloud before it is reflected out, giving a cloud its characteristic white color. As a cloud matures, the droplets may combine to produce larger droplets, which may combine to form droplets large enough to fall as rain. In this process of accumulation, the space between droplets becomes larger and larger, permitting light to penetrate much farther into the cloud. If the cloud is sufficiently large and the droplets within are spaced far enough apart, it may be that a percentage of the light which enters the cloud is not reflected back out before it is absorbed (Think of how much farther one can see in a heavy rain as opposed to how far one can see in a heavy fog). This process of reflection/absorption is what leads to the range of cloud color from white through grey through black. For the same reason, the undersides of large clouds and heavy overcasts appear various degrees of grey; little light is being reflected or transmitted back to the observer.

Other colors occur naturally in clouds. Bluish-grey is the result of light scattering within the cloud. In the visible spectrum, blue and green are at the short end of light's visible wavelengths, while red and yellow are at the long end. The short rays are more easily scattered by water droplets, and the long rays are more likely to be absorbed. The bluish color is evidence that such scattering is being produced by rain-sized droplets in the cloud.

A greenish tinge to a cloud is produced when sunlight is scattered by ice. A cumulonimbus cloud which shows green is an imminent sign of heavy rain, hail, strong winds and possible tornadoes.

Yellowish clouds are rare but may occur in the late spring through early fall months during forest fire season. The yellow color is due to the presence of smoke.

Red, orange and pink clouds occur almost entirely at sunrise/sunset and are the result of the scattering of sunlight by the atmosphere. The clouds are not that color; they are reflecting the long (and unscattered) rays of sunlight which are predominant at those hours. The effect is much the same as if one were to shine a red spotlight on a white sheet. In combination with large, mature thunderheads this can produce blood-red clouds.

Clouds on other Planets
Within our solar system, any planet or moon with an atmosphere also has clouds. Venus' clouds are composed entirely of sulfuric acid droplets. Mars has high, thin clouds of water ice. Both Jupiter and Saturn have an outer cloud deck composed of ammonia clouds, an intermediate deck of ammonium hydrosulfide clouds and an inner deck of water clouds. Uranus and Neptune have atmospheres dominated by methane clouds.

Saturn's moon Titan has clouds which are believed to be composed largely of droplets of liquid methane. The Cassini-Huygens Saturn mission has uncovered evidence of a fluid cycle on Titan, including lakes near the poles and fluvial channels on the surface of the moon.

How do Clouds Move?
Clouds move with the wind. High cirrus clouds are pushed along by the jet stream, sometimes traveling at more than 100 miles-per-hour. When clouds are part of a thunderstorm they usually travel at 30 to 40 mph.

How is Fog Formed?
There are many different types of fog, but fog is mostly formed when southerly winds bring warm, moist air into a region, possibly ending a cold outbreak. As the warm, moist air flows over much colder soil or snow, dense fog often forms. Warm, moist air is cooled from below as it flows over a colder surface. If the air is near saturation, moisture will condense out of the cooled air and form fog. With light winds, the fog near the ground can become thick and reduce visibilities to zero.

Classification of Clouds
Clouds are divided into two general categories: layered and convective. These are named stratus clouds (or stratiform, the Latin stratus means "layer") and cumulus clouds (or cumuliform; cumulus means "piled up"), respectively. These two cloud types are divided into four more groups that distinguish the cloud's altitude. Clouds are classified by the cloud base height, not the cloud top. This system was proposed by Luke Howard in 1802 in a presentation to the Askesian Society.

Cloud Chart Cloud Group Cloud Height Cloud Types
Cloud Group Cloud Height Cloud Types
High Clouds = Cirrus Above 18,000 feet Cirrus
Cirrostratus
Cirrocumulus
Contrails
Middle Clouds = Alto 6,500 feet to 18,000 feet Altostratus
Altocumulus
Low Clouds = Stratus Up to 6,500 feet Cumulus
Cumulonimbus
Nimbostratus
Stratocumulus
Stratus
Click HERE to view pictures of the various type of clouds.


Interesting Weather Facts
TROPICAL CYCLONE FACT
Craig's Key, Florida recorded the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded on land at 892 mb (26.35 inHg) on 02 September 1935 in the eye of the Labor Day Hurricane (Catagory 5). After forming as a weak tropical storm east of the Bahamas on August 29, it slowly proceeded westward and became a hurricane on September 1. It underwent rapid intensification while crossing the Florida Straits and struck the Upper Keys on Labor Day, Monday, September 2. The storm continued northwest along the Florida west coast, weakening before its second landfall near Cedar Key, Florida on September 4. This compact, yet intense hurricane caused extreme damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet (5.5-6.1 meters) swept over the low-lying islands. NOTE: While other landfalling tropical cyclones have almost certainly had lower pressures, data is spotty from areas other than the Atlantic basin, especially before the invention of weather satellites.