Cloud Formation


From the cute little puppy dogs to the ominous ogres in the sky, clouds can capture many an imagination. Little children sometimes think that clouds might be made of cotton candy. That’s a sweet thought, but let’s explore how they are really formed.

Water is the most important component in any living thing’s life. The human’s largest body percentage is water. The Earth’s largest percentage is water. It comes in many forms: liquid, ice, vapor, condensation or mist. Water is also the main component in cloud formation.

Basically the Earth’s atmosphere is loaded with water vapor. When the air becomes cooled that water vapor condenses to form the clouds we see in the sky. When the air is below freezing, clouds are composed of ice crystals and when the air is cooled the clouds are composed of water droplets. In the upper atmosphere all of this is visible. The same thing becomes visible in the lower atmosphere on occasion in the form of fog. Why does this happen in the first place, anyway?

Clouds have many forms and serve many purposes. Two of the largest reasons why clouds help us are rain and the distribution of the sun’s heat throughout the atmosphere and across the surface of the planet. These two key points help the most in the sustaining of all life on Earth. There are over one hundred varieties of clouds recorded.

The appearance and altitude of a cloud is determinate to the variety they are. The four basic groups are high, middle, low and vertical. Starting at eight kilometers into the atmosphere are the high clouds. Prior to that height at three to six kilometers are the middle varieties. Finally, the low clouds are in the 1.5-kilometer range. The vertical clouds form skyward from the low to the high range.

Cirrus clouds are the wispy clouds formed in the high atmosphere. They do not have much bulk and can extend across the sky. Also in the upper atmosphere the observer will find layered, sheet-like clouds known as stratus clouds. The darker, bulkier clouds that produce rain are the nimbus clouds. The puffy cotton? Those are the cumulus clouds. These are the formations that spark the most out of one’s imagination.

Mid-level and low-level clouds can contain a combination of these varieties. Also stratus and altocumulus are mid-level and stratus, stratocumulus and cumulus are low-lying varieties. You will hear on weather reports the term “jet stream”. You can actually see the jet stream with the naked eye in the form of cirrus clouds as they stretch out across the sky.

Through buoyancy, lifting (such as near a mountain range), and convergence our cotton candy is formed into clouds. We’ll close for now, as I see a pirate ship coming followed by bumblebees and unicorns. I wish to watch my parade of clouds now.