are characterized by thin, wisplike strands, often accompanied by tufts, leading to their common (non-standard) name of 'mare's tail'. Sometimes these clouds are so extensive that they are virtually indistinguishable from one another, forming a sheet of Cirrus called cirrostratus
. Sometimes convection at high altitudes produces another form of cirrus called cirrocumulus
, a pattern of small cloud tufts which include droplets of supercooled
Many cirrus clouds produce hair like filaments made of the heavier ice crystals that precipitate from them. These "fall streaks", a form of virga, often indicate the difference in the motion of air (wind shear) between the upper part of the cirrus cloud and the air below it. Sometimes the top of the cirrus cloud is moving rapidly above a slower layer of air, or the streak is falling into a faster moving lower layer. The directions of these winds can also vary.
Cirrus clouds are formed when water vapor freezes into ice crystals at altitudes above . Due to the sparse moisture at a high altitude, they tend to be very thin.
Cirrus usually form at altitudes above . At this altitude, aircraft leave condensation trails that can turn into cirrus clouds. This happens when hot exhaust, mostly water, freezes, leaving a visible trail. Streaks may appear straight when wind shear is absent, giving the clouds the appearance of a comma (cirrus uncinus
), or tangle, an indication of high-level turbulence
. The falling ice crystals evaporate before reaching the ground.
Cirrus clouds trap and reflect infrared radiation (heat) beneath them (greenhouse effect), but also reflect sunlight to some extent (albedo). It has not yet been determined whether the net effect of cirrus clouds is to warm or cool the earth. Much of the difficulty lies in modeling the albedo effect of clouds composed of various size and shape crystals. Older models tend to underestimate the albedo effect of cirrus. Refinements of these models will improve climate predictions.
A high number of Cirrus clouds may be a sign of an approaching frontal system
or upper air disturbance. This usually means that the weather will change, often becoming more stormy, within 24 hours. Cirrus clouds can also be the remnants of a thunderstorm
. A large shield of cirrus and cirrostratus typically accompany the high altitude outflow of hurricanes or typhoons. Cirrus clouds have also been observed developing after the persistent formation of contrails
from an aircraft.