Have you ever wished that you could fly up to the sky and jump on a fluffy cumulus cloud? Unfortunately, this is impossible! If you stepped out of an airplane hoping to jump onto the fields of puffy whiteness in front of you—you’d fall right through.

Did You Know?
The water vapour condenses to form clouds when warm, moist air hits cold air.

That’s because clouds are made up of water vapour, which has condensed onto tiny particles of dust in the sky. When billions of these condensed water droplets come together a visible cloud is formed. And, though it looks puffy and comfortable—that’s just an illusion.

If you ever look up at the sky on a cloudy day, you will notice that clouds come in various shapes, sizes, and even colours. Clouds were first classified based on their appearance and altitude by an Englishman named Luke Howard in the winter of 1802-1803.

To identify altitude he used Latin prefixes: cirro (high clouds, above 6,250 meters), alto (mid-level clouds between 1,875 and 6,250 meters) and low-level clouds which were not given a prefix. He also used the prefix nimbo or nimbus to identify a cloud that can produce precipitation.

Did You Know?
The biggest clouds are called cumulonimbus and they can be up to 10 kilometers tall! These clouds can also hold half a million tons of water.

He then identified three cloud shapes also using Latin names: cumulus (vertically developed fluffy clouds that appear alone, in lines or in clusters), stratus (flat, horizontally layered clouds that usually cover most of the sky), and cirrus (wispy, curly clouds that resemble a child’s hair).

While this might sound quite confusing, it’s a method of identification still used to this day. That’s why you’ll see names like, nimbostratus or cirrocumulus when identifying cloud formations.

Did You Know?
Saturn has clouds that are formed out of droplets of liquid methane. Now you’ve got a new game to play next time you look into the sky–name that cloud!

Sometimes the sky can look incredible with streaks of purple, pink and even orange clouds. Other times, you will see white fluffy clouds—the kind that look like cotton candy. And, on dreary days you’ll see a mass of grey, gloomy clouds. These changes occur because the water droplets that make up the clouds reflect sunlight. When you see white clouds, the water droplets are reflecting all of the light to your eyes so no colours can be seen. In contrast, the candy-coloured clouds scatter sunlight making beautiful sunsets and sunrises. When clouds are very thick or high up, the light above cannot make it through, so all you will see is a dull grey colour.

Learn more!

Web weather for kids

Common Cloud Classification

Weather Wiz Kids - Clouds

Article first published September 13, 2011

Photo Credit: Wikipedia commons

Alexandra Warren

Hello all! I am a third year General Science and Commerce student studying at the University of British Columbia. Although I do enjoy a bit of chemistry now and then, I am specializing in Ecology and Oceanography. When I am not cramming for my exams, I like to do yoga, go rock climbing, swimming, surfing, and, whenever I can, go cliff jumping! I love being outdoors and having adventures in our cool world that is full of amazing science.


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