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INDIANA STATE UNIVERSITY


CLIMATE LABORATORY

Exploring the Skies Above Indiana


Through Weather and Climate

CLOUD CLASSIFICATION

CAMERON DOUGLAS CRAIG


Indiana State University Climate Laboratory
Department of Geography, Geology and Anthropology
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana State University Climate Laboratory


Department of Geography, Geology and Anthropology
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana 47809
812.237.TEMP
wxlab@sapphire.indstate.edu

Clouds

Clouds are an important aspect in the function of the


atmosphere. The amount of solar energy that reaches the Earths
surface is partially determined by the amount of cloud cover within a
day. Clouds are also a key indicator of what the weather will be.
This booklet will present the ten basic cloud types derived
from the classification of Luke Howard (1772-1864). There are
essentially three basic cloud formsstratiform, cumuliform, and
cirrus. These forms are defined from the Latin as what they appear.
For example, stratus in Latin is translated as layered. Clouds that
exhibit a layering effect will contain the root stratus. Cumuliform
describes the clouds appearance as being stacked. Finally, cirrus
clouds are defined as hair-like.
Within each cloud form, clouds are further defined by the
altitude for which they normally exist. These altitudes are: high
(above 20,000 ft.), middle (6,500-20,000 ft.), and low (below 6,500
ft.). Cloud forms that exist in high altitudes are defined with the prefix
cirro-. For example, if the cloud is layered and is found in high
altitudes, it is labeled cirrostratus. Clouds that are found in the
middle altitude are given the prefix alto-. Low altitude clouds are
simply labeled by their root (stratus and cumulus).
There are three cloud types that are similar to the basic
clouds forms; however, their added features give them a separate
definition. Clouds that have precipitation are given the Latin prefix,
nimbo-, or suffix, -nimbus. For cumulus clouds that have vertical
extent and have precipitation, they are labeled as cumulonimbus.
Stratus clouds that produce precipitation are called nimbostratus.
Cumulus clouds that are stacked and layered are labeled as
stratocumulus.
In the following pages, each cloud type is categorized
according to the basic form (low to high altitude). Learning the
different cloud types is relatively easy if you notice the patternssize
and height. It is important to remember that these are basic cloud
types and it is possible that nature can provide several different cloud
combinations within a single day or even hour. However, these
combinations refer back to the basic cloud types.

Stratiform

Stratus clouds exhibit a layered appearance.


This
appearance is caused by relatively weak winds above the surface of
the Earth. As the wind blows, cloud droplets are spread across the
sky giving a layering aspect.
Stratus clouds (figure1) are typical of the stratiform
definition, layered, at the low altitude. It is this cloud that provides for
a gloomy day.
Altostratus clouds (figure 2) are found within the middle
altitude. When the Sun shines behind this cloud, the cloud appears
milky and fibrous.
Cirrostratus clouds (figure 3) are found in the higher altitudes.
A halo can be found around the Sun or Moon when viewed through
this cloud.

Figure 1. Stratus. Photo by Cameron D. Craig.

Figure 2. Altostratus. Photo by Cameron D. Craig.

Figure 3. Cirrostratus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

Cumuliform

Cumuliform clouds are defined by their stacked


appearance. These clouds, in the common description, are puffywhite with flat bottoms. When children draw clouds, these are the
clouds they think of first. With cumuliform clouds, size decreases
with altitude.
Cumulus clouds (figure 4) are just as they are definedlarge
and puffy-white. These clouds are typical of a fair day.
Altocumulus clouds (figure 5) are smaller than cumulus and
are often positioned in rows. These clouds can often display a
mackerel sky.
Cirrocumulus clouds (figure 6) are the smallest of this class of
cloud. Like the altocumulus clouds, cirrocumulus are sometimes
positioned in rows.

Figure 4. Cumulus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

Figure 5. Altocumulus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

Figure 6. Cirrocumulus. Photo by Cameron D. Craig.

Cirrus

Cirrus (figure 7), defined as hair-like, are clouds that exhibit


a streakiness as if they were pulled apartsuch as someone pulling
a tuff of cotton candy apart. There is only one cloud associated with
this formcirruswhich is only found at high altitudes.

Figure 7. Cirrus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

Clouds of Precipitation
and
Vertical Extent
Nimbostratus (figure 8) is a low altitude cloud that is layered
in appearance and has precipitation. Essentially, it is the same as a
stratus cloud but with precipitation. The precipitation intensity for
this cloud will be light or a drizzle and extend over a long period of
time.
The only cloud that has vertical extent, which covers all
altitudes is considered the King of the Cloudsthe cumulonimbus
(figures 9 and 10). This cloud often exhibits an anvil top and is
associated with thunderstorms and heavy rain as the label suggests.

Figure 8. Nimbostratus. Photo by Cameron D. Craig.

Figure 9. Cumulonimbus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

Figure 10. Cumulonimbus. Photo by Cameron D. Craig.

Stratocumulus

The stratocumulus cloud (figure 11) is the last of the ten cloud
types and form at low altitudes. This cloud is a mix between stacked
and layered clouds that are grayish and whitish in color and have
dark undersides. At times, the Sun can peek through these clouds
and then be totally obscured.

Figure 11. Stratocumulus. Photo from NOAA Photo Library.

References

Hidore, John J. and Oliver, John E. Climateology: An


Atmospheric Science. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1993.
NOAA Photo Library. http://www.noaa.gov/
Trewartha, Glenn T. An Introduction to Climate. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1954.