There’s nothing like lying in a field watching the clouds go by on a nice spring day. Undoubtedly, describing the shapes is a lot of fun, but there is a lot more to those cotton balls in the sky than one might think. Clouds are one of earth’s most aesthetically appealing contributions from the atmosphere. Just think, without clouds, there’d be no rain, snow, rainbows, thunder or lightning. It’d be blue sky everyday. How boring would that be? Clouds add excitement, and with so much variety, how could one not be set in awe staring at them?

Scientifically, a cloud is defined as a visible aggregate of tiny water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air. The basic cloud classifications are:

  • Stratus (sheet like, flat, low clouds)
  • Cumulus (puffy, cotton-candy-like, tall clouds)
  • Cirrus (wispy, high clouds)

Within these simple classification, clouds can become much more complex. Whether they can and will produce precipitation, as well as what shape they form is all due to surrounding atmospheric conditions.

A rain cloud, for example, could be a nimbostratus, a dark gray cloud with continuously falling precipitation. This cloud has a low base and top, usually sustaining  a height of only 2000 meters. These clouds are calm rain clouds with not much severity to them. However, a rain cloud could be a cumulonimbus, which can span nearly 12000 meters (39,000 feet) vertically, penetrating through the stratosphere. These clouds have tremendous amounts of energy and are producers of beautiful severe thunderstorms.

Along with these common cloud formations, Mother Nature also has fun making some unusual clouds as well. Strange cloud classifications include lenticularis, noctilucent, mammatus and roll clouds. Not commonly seen around Principia, but possible to form, these clouds take on jaw-dropping shapes.

Lenticular clouds usually have a lens shape, or shaped like an almond, often elongated with well-defined outlines. What’s cool about them is that they often stack like pancakes and can resemble a flying spacecraft. Consequentially, several UFO sightings have been reported while lenticular clouds are present.

Noctilucent clouds are bluish-white clouds that are so thin that the stars shine through them. The best place to spot them is in polar regions at twilight. They are also known as “luminous night clouds.” Noctilucent clouds are composed of tiny ice crystals and form very high in the upper mesosphere.

Mammatus clouds get their name from the way they appear. They resemble a cow’s udder and most commonly form on the underside of cumulonimbus clouds. In order for mammatus clouds to form, air that is sinking must be cooler than the surrounding air and have high liquid water content. Recently, there were mild mammatus clouds at Principia right above a recent baseball game.

Roll clouds are very rare, tube shaped clouds that are completely detached from a cumulus base. They appear to be rolling on a horizontal axis across the sky. They do not produce rain or tornadoes like common cumulonimbus clouds can, but just roll along. Roll clouds have been sighted off the coast of New Zealand and go on for miles.