Clouds are classified by their height and appearance from the ground. Fortunately most clouds are harmless, and they can help you decipher what the weather is doing.
Brenda Brock is the Chief Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Des Moines, Iowa. She says cloud types are categorized as low, middle, or high by their position in the atmosphere.
"Cumulus clouds look like little cotton balls and they have puffy tops. As long as they're not growing, that's an indication of a nice day," says Brock. "If you've got those stratus clouds which are layered, they're featureless and they're drab. And then the highest cloud is a cirrus. When the clouds are that high up, they're actually ice crystals rather than drops of water. They're whipped around by wind so it looks really pretty and wispy."
Dark nimbus clouds are associated with rain or snow.
Brock says you can learn a lot by observing low, middle, and high-level clouds. For example, try following the life of a thunderstorm cloud.
"The cloud just starts out as a cumulus cloud that's puffy, and then it starts to grow more, then it gets the anvil look at the top, and so that's a mature cumulus cloud," says Brock. "When it starts dissipate, that anvil top gets kind of fuzzy looking, and so that energy is really dissipating."
Certain cloud types within a thunderstorm can indicate its strength. A wall cloud lowers from the rain-free base of a strong storm. It takes on many shapes and sizes, and indicates an updraft that could be harmless, or become tornadic. Shelf clouds are wedge-shaped and at the leading edge of a thunderstorm. They have strong winds, but normally don't produce tornadoes.
Learn more about cloud classification and characteristics
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