Clouds 1: Names

Figure 1: Alien ship/altocumulus lenticularis at sunset, October 20th, 2016 at 6:18PM MT, Erie, CO. Joseph Straccia, Clouds Second, 2016.

Clouds may be the most important form of flow visualization available to everyone on the planet. Weather, including clouds, affects all of us, and being able to read the sky is tremendously useful for anybody who goes outside. But clouds mean much more than this to us. Clouds are often beautiful and sometimes frightening (Figure 1 might be both). Most of us have admired a spectacular sunset or spent time looking for recognizable shapes in clouds. Gavin Pretor-Pinney, in the Manifesto  of the Cloud Appreciation Society asserts,

WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen:

Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!

Whatever your reason, knowing how and why clouds exist will deepen your appreciation for them. In this section, you’ll learn to recognize different clouds, describe the air motion and atmospheric stability  that govern the appearance of clouds, and even interpret weather data including Skew-T plots and wind soundings to predict  and help identify clouds.

Names of Clouds

The first step is to recognize the basic clouds. Many of us learned the names of various types of clouds when we were children. How many can you recall?

There is a huge assortment of written information on how to identify clouds. My absolute favorite is The Cloudspotter’s Guide by British author Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society . He founded the society during a tongue-in-cheek lecture in 2004, and got such an overwhelming response from cloud lovers that he has expanded it into a thriving enterprise. His Cloudspotter’s Guide gives accurate, detailed descriptions of clouds and cloud physics, interspersed with fascinating stories about humanity’s interaction with clouds in history and art. It is a delightful read, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Even if you know all the names (maybe you are a pilot), correctly identifying a cloud is no child’s game. Sometimes a cloud’s appearance will fit multiple definitions, at which point you’ll need more data to figure out what they are best named. For example, you might walk out into the rain, and not be able to tell from just looking whether you are under a benign nimbostratus or a dangerous cumulonimbus until you see lightning. You might have to watch for a while to see how the cloud is developing; is it growing, or shrinking? Is it moving, or just seeming to move or not move? Is it changing shape, from a sheet to cloudlets or vice versa? What altitude is it at? Is that altitude changing? Is there precipitation happening? Does the season make one or another cloud more likely? But the most important bit of data you may need is the reason the cloud is there at all.

Next, why are there clouds?


R. Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies, First Edition. New York: Picador, 2002.
R. Coyle, “Boulder Stratus Fractus Cloud Formation,” University of Colorado Boulder, Flow Vis Course Report, Feb. 2014 [Online]. Available:
“Cloud Appreciation Society Manifesto,” Cloud Appreciation Society. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jun. 29, 2022]
“The Cloud Appreciation Society,” Cloud Appreciation Society. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jun. 27, 2022]
“Field Guide to Clouds Mobile App | Center for Science Education.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jun. 27, 2022]
G. Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide. Perigee/Penguin, 2006.
“List of cloud types,” Wikipedia. Jun. 18, 2022 [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jun. 27, 2022]


Clouds 2: Why Are There Clouds?