We have all spent lazy afternoons looking up at the sky, imagining that we see pictures in the clouds. Depending on what time of day and where you are, you might be looking at different types of clouds.
There are plenty of different clouds out there, and though they are all fluffy and suspended well above our heads, they are different. It is our goal to help you understand a bit about the different types of clouds that are most common.
Short Answer: There are three different classifications of clouds, high, middle, and low. Clouds are given their classification based on where they are in the atmosphere.
Within each classification of clouds, there are further divisions that classify clouds by their appearance and by their overall characteristics. High clouds are generally 16,000 to 43,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. Middle clouds are normally 7,000 to 23,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.
Low clouds are generally no more than 7,000 feet up from the surface of the Earth. The most common types of clouds are Stratus, and Cumulus and these are both types that you have likely heard of before either in science class or through your own research.
The classifications within the height are based on what the cloud looks like. Stratus clouds, for example, are large and hazy. Cumulous clouds are those large fluffy clouds that we see in the sky nearly every day.
Cirrus clouds are larger and further away and are generally wispy and more delicate. The type of cloud can be affected by weather conditions, they can be affected by pollution and the air quality in the area where they are being viewed, and they can be affected by where they are located within the stratosphere.
Cloud types are varied, they can change within minutes, and they can shift without much warning. Some clouds are wholly related to the weather, while others are not affected by the weather and are instead formed based on where they are.
There are around 14 different types of clouds that you might come across when cloud watching;
- Contrails Cloud
- kelvin-Helmholtz Cloud
- Lenticular Cloud
- Cumulonimbus Cloud
- Cumulus Cloud
- Nimbostratus Cloud
- Stratocumulus Cloud
- Stratus Cloud
- Altostratus Cloud
- Altocumulus Cloud
- Cirrostratus Cloud
- Cirrocumulus Cloud
- Cirrus Cloud
Types of Clouds:
- High clouds – are located 16,000 to 43,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. Types of high clouds are cirrus (wispy clouds), cirrocumulus (clouds that look like small cotton balls), and cirrostratus (very spread out and wispy clouds).
- Middle clouds – are located from 7,000 to 23,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. Types of middle clouds are altocumulus (small, broken up looking clouds) and altostratus (spread out, sheetlike clouds).
- Low clouds – are located from the surface of the Earth up to 7,000 feet above the surface. Types of low clouds are stratus (this can be fog or very hazy clouds that are very low), stratocumulus ( large fluffy, pillowy clouds), or nimbostratus ( very spread out clouds that are close to the surface).
- Clouds with vertical growth are cumulus clouds – these are the clouds that we see most often in the sky, and that grow up instead of spreading out like other types of clouds. These are often associated with rain. There are also cumulonimbus clouds that are very large cloud formations.
- There are also unusual cloud formations like lenticular clouds that are long and spread out. Kevin-Helmholtz clouds are long clouds that are broken up. Mammatus clouds are very low, very large, and clouds that almost look like they are sagging.
- There are also contrails, which are clouds left behind by airplanes that gradually spread out and dissipate.
How Are Clouds Formed?
Clouds are made up of water droplets or ice crystals that are very light and that have the ability to float on air. That is why when it is foggy outside, you feel like you are wet when you walk through the fog.
When the warm air rises from the surface of the Earth, the air swells and cools and then spreads out to form clouds. If you see a white cloud, you are seeing the light reflected from the water droplets and the sun passing through them. With dark clouds like rain clouds, the light is scattered and not reflected back to the people on the ground looking up.
Types of Clouds for Kids
There are four main types of clouds to which all other clouds are often grouped or named some variation of this type. There are cumulus, cirrus, stratus, and nimbus clouds.
Within each category of clouds, there are also smaller subcategories that help to further differentiate the clouds and further categorize them based on what they look like, what causes them, what factors affect them, and so on.
These are the thin and very wispy clouds that you see. These clouds are very high up in the sky and are often spread out, so they look like they are dissipating and that they are scattering.
These clouds are made of ice crystals rather than water droplets, so they are thinner, and they are more stretched out. Clear days where there are no other clouds often have cirrus clouds, which means that there is not going to be a huge cloud cover.
This is the typical cloud that most people think of when they imagine clouds. These are the large and fluffy clouds that we see in the sky on most days. In Latin, the word cumulus means pile, and these clouds look like piles of cotton or piles of whipped cream.
This type of cloud forms when water droplets and warm air from the surface of the Earth rise up, and then the water droplets cling together. This type of cloud is especially common on warm days where there are little clouds and where water vapor can freely evaporate from the surface of the Earth. These clouds can be fluffy and white, or they can be fluffy and dark and heavy with rain that is about to fall.
These clouds are more blanketed than other forms of clouds. These are often very sheetlike and do spread across the sky and cover it. These clouds are often very thick and do not seem like you can see through them.
They can form fog, snow, rain, and are made up of moisture. These clouds are always present before there is any sort of precipitation. In most cases, these clouds are going to need warmer weather to help form, and they are often present when it has been cold, and a warm front moves in.
Nimbus clouds are those that are most often directly associated with weather. For this type of cloud to be named, it means that there is already some form of precipitation falling from it.
This can be snow clouds or rain clouds and can also be a combination of several clouds that have come together and cause precipitation of some sort. These clouds can be full of rain or full of snow, but they do have to have some form of precipitation coming from them to be considered a nimbus cloud.
Most often, nimbus clouds need moisture to form, and the more clouds that merge and come together, the more likely a nimbus cloud is to form. When these clouds come together, the combined moisture that is in the clouds will become heavy and will likely fall in the form of precipitation in some form or other.
What Affects the Formation of Clouds?
There are several different factors that can directly affect the formation of clouds, and that can affect what type of cloud is ultimately formed. The sun is the first process that affects the formation of clouds.
Clouds need heat and evaporation to form. The sun helps to warm the Earth and help to draw out the moisture and bring it into the atmosphere. When the sun is not shining, there is going to be less evaporation. When it is very cold, there are likely to be far fewer clouds.
The topography of the area can also affect clouds. Clouds are not going to be able to hold together if they float over a mountain or if they lose their heat. When the clouds go over the mountains and the valleys, they lose the heat that helped to form them, and physically hitting landscape markers can break up the clouds and cause them to lose shape and then to lose overall structure as well.
Pressure systems can also affect clouds. When a low or high-pressure system enters the picture, it can force the clouds up and down, which can then alter their overall structure and how they look and are formed. If the air is forced up by the landscape, it can change the clouds, and it can also make new clouds form.
Lastly, weather fronts affect clouds greatly. Warm fronts are the main cause of clouds, and if there are back to back to back warm fronts, there are going to be a ton of clouds.
In order for clouds to form, there does need to be warm weather that helps with evaporation and helps the water to be forced up into the atmosphere. When a warm and a cold front bump into each other, essentially, the cold air forces the warm air up because warm air rises, and then more clouds are formed.
Other factors like pollution, bodies of water, and other very moist conditions can also affect clouds and help to create more clouds. There are plenty of factors that can produce clouds, and that can also affect clouds that have already formed.