Wonderful Waterful Wednesday: the Language of Clouds

Today’s waterful blog post celebrates not the water in oceans or streams, but that which hangs out in the sky: clouds. Yes, of course you knew that clouds were masses of water droplets (or ice crystals) suspended in the air – after all, without clouds you can’t have rain.  But doesn’t it amaze you still? Hundreds of millions of gallons of water – hardly light stuff – suspended from meters to miles above our heads.

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Of course, not all clouds are alike. And with a little practice you can even learn to read them.  No, I don’t mean finding the one that looks like a bunny or a train. (My son comes up with really elaborate images, like a one-winged dragon eating an eagle that’s holding a fish in it’s claws – and winking). I’m referring to one of the oldest ways to forecast the weather. Because different cloud shapes say different things about what you can expect.

Clouds are classified on their shape and their elevation in the sky. Some common cloud terms are:


Cirrus means ‘curl of hair’; stratus = layer; cumulus = heap; nimbus = rain. So cumulonimbus, the tall anvil-shape that signals a huge thunderstorm means “heap of rain” – ’cause that’s what’s coming!


Stratus clouds are found below 6,000 feet; alto from 6,000 – 20,000 feet. (Just to confuse things, stratus means sheet and can be used to describe the shape of a cloud OR it’s elevation, since stratus clouds are usually found in the lower part of the sky. Go figure).

[UPDATE: My original list was way too complicated. I’ve simplified it below].

Clouds that portend rain, snow or a change in the weather

Thin cirrus clouds are found high, high up.  These wisps usually portend a change in the weather within the next 24 hours.

Cirrostratus clouds are also high up. These are sheet-like; thin enough to see the sun or moon through. When the sky is covered by these, expect snow or rain in 12-24 hours.

Altostratus clouds create a mid-level layer that covers the entire sky with a sheet of gray. These clouds form ahead of storms of continuous rain or snow.

Altocumulus clouds are large gray puffy masses, that look like God is communicating with smoke signals. The message on a warm, humid morning is: be prepared for thunderstorms in the late afternoon.

Stratus clouds are the low thick masses that cover the sky, and make you feel like your walking under a low gray ceiling. Light mist or drizzle might fall from these, but not necessarily – they could be fair weather clouds as well.

Nimbostratus form a dark gray wet cloudy layer low in the sky. They are associated with continuous light or moderate rain or snow.

Cumulonimus clouds defy characterization by elevation because these anvil-shaped monsters can stretch from close to the ground to 50,000 feet. These proclaim “run for cover” as loudly as a thunderclap.

Clear Skies Ahead

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. No so with clouds and rain…

Cirrocumulus clouds are small rounded puffs that appear in long rows  high in the sky (beneath or round your airplane). In temperate regions, these clouds mean that you can expect cold but fair weather.

Stratocumulus are low puffy and gray. They make you want to bring an umbrella just in case, but rain is rarely associated with these clouds.  However, they can turn into their foul weather cousins, nimbostratus (above).

And last but not least:

Cumulus are the white puffy cottonball clouds that children put in their drawings – usually next to a  big bright sun. That’s appropriate because these clouds herald fair weather.

So, the next time you’re walking outside, look up and see if you can read the next day’s weather in the language of the clouds.

What’s the weather like in your neighborhood? Is the sun shining or the rain falling? What’s the craziest cloud shape you ever saw? Share in the comments below!

Writing update: A Round of Words in 80 Days

Holy smokes have I been busy! Didn’t do a blog post or ROW80 check-in on Sunday, but I have been writing. An agent friend challenged me to come up with an erotic short story. The deal was that I would send her a two-sentence summary and two paragraphs of “backcover copy” within a few days, a two-page synopsis the following week, and the completed story within a month. She doesn’t usually rep erotica (and I don’t usually write it!), but if it’s good, she’ll try to sell it for me. I needed a new challenge, something to write that would take my mind off the revisions, so there it is.

I’ve completed the first part of the challenge and the synopsis is due this weekend. So far so good – wish me luck!

Other goals? Hmm – writing is going well, both this story and the morning pages.  I’ve put aside revising for now to focus on this story, which is good because revising was making me nuts. The learning goal has stalled for a bit, but I’m eager to do some more Artist’s Way lessons and an artist’s date. Tune in on Sunday for more! In the meantime, check out everyone else’s progress here.

Danielle Meitiv is a writer, science geek, gardener, and mother who goes barefoot whenever possible. Danielle is also a huge fan and sales affiliate for Holly Lisle’s online courses: How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers, and How to Revise Your Novel. Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, and on Facebook: Danielle Meitiv’s Barefoot Blog, and Danielle Meitiv.


7 thoughts on “Wonderful Waterful Wednesday: the Language of Clouds

  1. Excellent article thanks for sharing. You have a great layout here. I really enjoy it. I have been blogging since they first started popping up. It’s great to see other blogs do so well.

  2. Gorgeous cloud photos–and it’s been enormously helpful to predict bad weather here in N Texas. Finally my Internet connection is back up. If I’d read this before it went down I could have planned better. *s*

  3. I felt like I was back in earth science reading your blog. I needed the refresher course! 🙂

    Good luck on your erotica short! I can’t wait to hear more about it….or read it!

  4. I’m glad I found your blog. I found it through Google Image search actually. I was trying to find out the maximum altitude you could get rain (research for a story). The cumulonimbus clouds go up to 50,000 feet, but I guess you couldn’t really get rain that high up. Anyway, great post. Good luck with your story!

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