Clouds are formed when air containing water vapor is cooled below a critical temperature called the dew point and the resulting moisture condenses into droplets on microscopic dust particles (condensation nuclei) in the atmosphere. The air is normally cooled by expansion during its upward movement. Upward flow of air in the atmosphere may be caused by convection resulting from intense solar heating of the ground; by a cold wedge of air (cold front) near the ground causing a mass of warm air to be forced aloft; or by a mountain range at an angle to the wind. Clouds are occasionally produced by a reduction of pressure aloft or by the mixing of warmer and cooler air currents.
A classification of cloud forms was first made (1801) by French naturalist Jean Lamarck. In 1803, Luke Howard, an English scientist, devised a classification that was adopted by the International Meteorological Commission (1929), designating three primary cloud types, cirrus, cumulus, and stratus, and their compound forms, which are still used today in modified form. Today's classification has four main divisions: high clouds, 20,000 to 40,000 ft (6,100-12,200 m); intermediate clouds, 6,500 to 20,000 ft (1,980-6,100 m); low clouds, near ground level to 6,500 ft (1,980 m); and clouds with vertical development, 1,600 ft to over 20,000 ft (490-6,100 m).
High cloud forms include cirrus, detached clouds of delicate and fibrous appearance, generally white in color, often resembling tufts or featherlike plumes, and composed entirely of ice crystals; cirrocumulus (mackerel sky), composed of small white flakes or very small globular masses, arranged in groups, lines, or ripples; and cirrostratus, a thin whitish veil, sometimes giving the entire sky a milky appearance, which does not blur the outline of the sun or moon but frequently produces a halo.
Intermediate clouds include altocumulus, patchy layer of flattened globular masses arranged in groups, lines, or waves, with individual clouds sometimes so close together that their edges join; and altostratus, resembling thick cirrostratus without halo phenomena, like a gray veil, through which the sun or the moon shows vaguely or is sometimes completely hidden.
Low clouds include stratocumulus, a cloud layer or patches composed of fairly large globular masses or flakes, soft and gray with darker parts, arranged in groups, lines, or rolls, often with the rolls so close together that their edges join; stratus, a uniform layer resembling fog but not resting on the ground; and nimbostratus, a nearly uniform, dark grey layer, amorphous in character and usually producing continuous rain or snow.
Clouds having vertical development include cumulus, a thick, detached cloud, generally associated with fair weather, usually with a horizontal base and a dome-shaped upper surface that frequently resembles a head of cauliflower and shows strong contrasts of light and shadow when the sun illuminates it from the side, and cumulonimbus, the thunderstorm cloud, heavy masses of great vertical development whose summits rise in the form of mountains or towers, the upper parts having a fibrous texture, often spreading out in the shape of an anvil, and sometimes reaching the stratosphere. Cumulonimbus generally produces showers of rain, snow, hailstorms, or thunderstorms.
Cloudiness (or proportion of the sky covered by any form of cloud), measured in tenths, is one of the elements of climate. The cloudiness of the United States averages somewhat less than 50% (i.e., the country receives somewhat more than 50% of the possible sunshine); the Great Lakes region and the coast of Washington and Oregon have the greatest cloudiness (60%-70%), and the SW United States—Arizona and adjacent areas—are the least cloudy (10%-30%). Clouds have become an important focus in the study of global warming or cooling, including how the increase or decrease in cloud cover can effect the amount of radiation reflected from the earth back into space.
See R. S. Scorer, Clouds of the World (1972); R. Houze, Cloud Dynamics (1991).
A cloud is a visible mass of droplets or frozen crystals floating in the atmosphere above the surface of the Earth or another planetary body. A cloud is also a visible mass attracted by gravity (clouds can also occur as masses of material in interstellar space, where they are called interstellar clouds and nebulae.) The branch of meteorology in which clouds are studied is nephology or cloud physics.
On Earth the hunter condensing substance is typically water vapor, which forms small droplets of ice crystals, typically 0.01 mm in diameter. When surrounded by billions of other droplets or crystals they become visible as clouds. Dense deep clouds exhibit a high reflectance (70% to 95%) throughout the visible range of wavelengths: they thus appear white, at least from the top. Cloud droplets tend to scatter light efficiently, so that the intensity of the solar radiation decreases with depth into the gases, hence the gray or even sometimes dark appearance of the clouds at their base. Thin clouds may appear to have acquired the color of their environment or background, and clouds illuminated by non-white light, such as during sunrise or sunset, may be colored accordingly. In the near-infrared range, clouds would appear darker because the water that constitutes the cloud droplets strongly absorbs solar radiation at those wavelengths.
Clouds in Family C include:
These clouds can have strong up-currents, rise far above their bases and form at many heights.
Clouds in Family D include:
Some clouds form as a consequence of interactions with specific geographical features. Perhaps the strangest geographically-specific cloud in the world is Morning Glory, a rolling cylindrical cloud which appears unpredictably over the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. Associated with a powerful "ripple" in the atmosphere, the cloud may be "surfed" in unpowered glider aircraft.
The color of a cloud, as seen from the Earth, tells much about what is going on inside the cloud. Clouds form when relatively warm air containing water vapor is lighter than its surrounding air and this causes it to rise. As it rises it cools and the vapor condenses out of the air as micro-droplets. These tiny particles of water are relatively densely packed and sunlight cannot penetrate far into the cloud before it is reflected out, giving a cloud its characteristic white color. As a cloud matures, the droplets may combine to produce larger droplets, which may combine to form droplets large enough to fall as rain. In this process of accumulation, the space between droplets becomes larger and larger, permitting light to penetrate much farther into the cloud. If the cloud is sufficiently large and the droplets within are spaced far enough apart, it may be that a percentage of the light which enters the cloud is not reflected back out before it is absorbed (Think of how much farther one can see in a heavy rain as opposed to how far one can see in a heavy fog). This process of reflection/absorption is what leads to the range of cloud color from white through grey through black. For the same reason, the undersides of large clouds and heavy overcasts appear various degrees of grey; little light is being reflected or transmitted back to the observer.
Other colours occur naturally in clouds. Bluish-grey is the result of light scattering within the cloud. In the visible spectrum, blue and green are at the short end of light's visible wavelengths, while red and yellow are at the long end. The short rays are more easily scattered by water droplets, and the long rays are more likely to be absorbed. The bluish color is evidence that such scattering is being produced by rain-sized droplets in the cloud.
Red, orange and pink clouds occur almost entirely at sunrise/sunset and are the result of the scattering of sunlight by the atmosphere. The clouds are not that color; they are reflecting the long (and unscattered) rays of sunlight which are predominant at those hours. The effect is much the same as if one were to shine a red spotlight on a white sheet. In combination with large, mature thunderheads this can produce blood-red clouds.
New research From Dimming to Brightening: Decadal Changes in Solar Radiation at Earth's Surface by Martin Wild et al. (Science 6 May 2005; 308: 847-850) indicates global brightening trend.
Global brightening is caused by decreased amounts of particulate matter in the atmosphere. With less particulate matter there is less surface area for condensation to occur. Since there's less condensation in the atmosphere and increased evaporation caused by increasing amounts of sunlight striking the water's surface there is more moisture, causing fewer but thicker clouds.
Saturn's moon Titan has clouds which are believed to be composed largely of droplets of liquid methane. The Cassini-Huygens Saturn mission has uncovered evidence of a fluid cycle on Titan, including lakes near the poles and fluvial channels on the surface of the moon.