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How Clouds Work

Condensation alone can only generate droplets of sufficient size to produce drizzle. Raindrops are formed either by the coalescence of cloud droplets or by the production of snowflakes, graupel amalgamations of frozen water droplets , or hail and their subsequent melting as they descend through the warmer regions of the cloud. Meteorologists classify clouds primarily by their appearance.

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The eight main cloud families are divided into three groups on the basis of altitude. High clouds, which are found at mean heights above the ground of 13 to 5 km 42, to 16, feet , are cirrus , cirrocumulus , and cirrostratus.

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Middle clouds, 7 to 2 km 23, to 6, feet , are altocumulus and altostratus. Low clouds, 2 to 0 km 6, to 0 feet , are stratocumulus , stratus , and nimbostratus. A cloud that extends through all three heights is called a cumulonimbus. A cloud at the surface is called a fog.

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Clouds may also be classified according to the air motions that produce them. In this method of classification there are four major types: layer clouds formed by the widespread regular ascent of air; layer clouds produced by widespread irregular stirring or turbulence; cumuliform clouds resulting from penetrative convection; and orographic clouds generated by the ascent of air over hills or mountains. Precipitation in significant amounts generally falls only from nimbostratus and cumulonimbus clouds. Steady rain that lasts for an entire day or longer is usually produced by the nimbostratus variety.

In most cases, cumulonimbus clouds are accompanied by showers of rain, snow , or hail. A cumulonimbus is a common sign of a thunderstorm and on rare occasions is associated with tornadoes. Cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus clouds are composed exclusively of ice crystals, but the crystals generally evaporate before reaching the ground if there are no lower clouds present. When thick clouds of water drops are present at lower levels, however, the ice crystals from above may seed the lower clouds, permitting precipitation to occur and to reach the ground as snow or rain, depending on the temperature.

Stratus clouds may produce drizzle, whereas the cumulus type sometimes yields showers. Clouds are valuable aids in weather forecasting. If the sky, for example, is becoming overcast with cirrus and cirrostratus clouds thickening and lowering to altostratus clouds, precipitation is imminent , probably from an approaching warm front in temperate latitudes or perhaps a hurricane in the tropics.

New active thunderstorms are indicated by cumulus growing rapidly into cumulonimbus on a humid day, even though the Sun may be shining brightly between the clouds. The presence of overcast results in smaller diurnal temperature variations. In the evening a low overcast acts like a blanket, preventing the temperature from dropping much at night. A clear evening sky, on the other hand, indicates rapid cooling particularly if the air mass is dry , which can lead to dew , frost , or even fog the following morning.

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Get on my cloud

Read More on This Topic. Cloud s are formed by the lifting of damp air, which cools by expansion as it encounters the lower pressures existing at….

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Britannica Quiz. Clouds: Fact or Fiction? Start Your Free Trial Today. Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. Cloud s are formed by the lifting of damp air, which cools by expansion as it encounters the lower pressures existing at higher levels in the atmosphere. The relative humidity increases until the air has become saturated with water vapour, and then condensation…. However, the effects on near-surface air temperatures are complicated. Bottom line: You might on occasion see a rainbow-like cloud.

The lunar calendars are here! Makes a great gift. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since , Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century.

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Transit of Mercury on November 11, A deep look at Orion. Help Support EarthSky with a Donation! EarthSky Updates on your cosmos and world. I saw a cloud with rainbow colors. What causes it? Posted by Deborah Byrd in Earth November 25, Deborah Byrd. Tonight Transit of Mercury on November 11, Today's Image A deep look at Orion.