AZ Monsoon

Meet your clouds – Cirrus, Stratus, and Cumulus

Most of us have fantasized while admiring clouds; but have you ever wondered why clouds float?  As long as the cloud is warmer than the outside air around it, it will float.

angels in the sky

cloud that looks like an angel

The height of the cloud in the atmosphere depends on the temperature and amount of water vapor of the rising air.  For example, drier air has to rise higher to cool enough to start condensation.

Microburst Monsoon cloud

vertically developed – cumulonimbus clouds

Cumulus clouds can grow into cumulonimbus clouds which are larger and often spread out in the shape of an anvil or plume. Cumulonimbus may produce heavy rain, lightning, severe and strong winds, hail, microbursts, and even tornadoes.

Clouds are grouped by their shape and by their height in the atmosphere.

Arizona storm clouds monsoon

Nimbostratus – rain bearing clouds

The characteristics of clouds are established by the elements available, including amount of water vapor, temperatures at the height, wind, mountains and other air masses.

The names of clouds come from Latin words that describe their characteristics. The main types of clouds are:

  • Cirrus means “curl” or “fringe”,
  • Nimbus means “rain-bearing”,
  • Stratus means “layer”,
  • Cumulus means “heap” or “pile”
arizona desert clouds

Cumulus cloud

Cumulus clouds are probably the most recognized clouds. These clouds form below 6,000 feet but in some extreme cases they can be in altitudes as high as 39,000 feet! They look like white, fluffy cotton balls. The reason cumulus appear fluffy is because bubbles of air, called thermals, linger in the cloud.

In mountainous areas, clouds may form lines at an angle to the wind. Wave clouds do not move downwind as clouds usually do, but remain fixed in position relative to the obstruction that forms them, for example: mountains.

clouds and wind

cumulus wave clouds by a mountain

Lenticular clouds form on the downwind side of mountains and are lens-shaped. Wind blows most types of clouds across the sky, but lenticular clouds seem to stay in one place.

clouds that look like UFOs

lenticular clouds are lens shaped

Strato-cumulus clouds form in altitudes below 6,000 feet.  Below photo shows a low layer of strato-cumulus clouds spreading the remains of larger cumulus clouds.

cumulus and stratus clouds

Stratocumulus clouds

Alto-cumulus clouds differ from Strato-cumulus  because they are slightly smaller. One easy way to determine if the cloud is alto-cumulus or strato-cumulus is to hold your hand up to the sky,  alto-cumulus clouds are about the size of a human thumb nail while strato-cumulus clouds are the size of a fist.

cumulus clouds

Strato-cumulus and Alto-cumulus clouds

Stratus clouds belong to the low cloud (surface-2000m, below 6,000 ft) group.  They are uniformed layered, gray in color and can cover most or all of the sky

stratus fog clouds

stratus clouds can look like fog

Stratus clouds can look like a fog  and are associated with overcast weather. Only drizzle comes from stratus clouds, if heavier rain falls then their title is changed to nimbostratus.

clouds in arizona

Stratus clouds

storm rain clouds tucson

Nimbostratus clouds

The most common of the high clouds is Cirrus.  These clouds are composed of ice and are thin, curly, wispy, feathery clouds. 

long cirrus clouds

wispy CIRRUS clouds

Cirrus clouds are usually white and predict fair weather even though they are so cold and composed entirely of ice.  They are the fastest moving cloud because the wind current is very strong at that high altitude.

identify clouds white long

Cirrus clouds

Cumulonimbus clouds belong to the thunderstorm clouds or clouds with vertical growth group. Reaching heights to 10km, high winds will flatten the top of a cumulonimbus cloud out into an anvil-like shape.

monsoon cloud in arizona

Thunderstorm clouds

Cumulonimbus clouds, also called Storm Clouds, cause heavy rain, lightning, hail, snow and tornadoes.

Cumulus Monsoon clouds weather in Tucson

Thunderstorm Clouds

Cumulus clouds, which indicate low-level atmospheric moisture often precede storms. In this picture of a Cumulonimbus cloud or thunderstorm cloud, much lightning was occurring with the winds increasing rapidly.

Tucson microburst storm clouds

Monsoon storm clouds in Arizona

Arizona monsoon weather storm clouds

Cumulonimbus cloud – Thunderstorm clouds

cumulus and mammatus storm clouds

Mammatus clouds

Mammatus clouds are pouches of clouds that hang underneath the base of a cloud. They are usually seen with cumulonimbus clouds that produce very strong storms.

storm clouds cumulus

mammatus clouds

Mammatus clouds look like a field of tennis balls, melons, or like female breasts. That is where the name comes from.  

main types of clouds photo

Cirrus, Stratus, and Cumulus clouds

Cirrostratus clouds form in the 18,000 feet and above. The refraction of light by the ice crystals in the Cirrostratus clouds cause a halo around the sun or moon.

stratus clouds

Cirrostratus clouds

You can not see the halo when this happens but the sun or moon will be less visible because the Cirrostratus clouds condense too much for clear visibility. Clouds are usually white and predict fair weather. These clouds often follow Cirrus clouds therefore Cirrostratus clouds are indicators of good weather.

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