If you’ve ever seen a sunrise or sunset that took your breath away, chances are good that there were wispy clouds on the horizon reflecting the pinks and oranges of the sun. The fact that those clouds were probably cirrus clouds likely didn’t cross your mind. We don’t typically think about clouds in those terms.
But there are, in fact, many different types of clouds in endless shapes and sizes, and they can signal good weather and bad.
Each type plays a role in helping meteorologists and weather spotters predict upcoming weather conditions, which, with practice, is something you can also learn to do. Boning up on the study of clouds can certainly save you from getting soaked in a storm, but it can also just be fun. Here are the basics to get you going.
The National Weather Service says there are four main categories of clouds:
Each cloud in the sky is unique, and many clouds boast features from multiple categories. So, the four main types of clouds are broken into sub-groups, based on their distance from the ground, according to the National Weather Service. Low-level clouds occur below 6,500 feet; mid-level clouds appear between 6,500 and 20,000 feet; and high-level clouds are 20,000 feet and above.
Not every white, puffy form in the sky fits into these categories — contrails, the cloudy streaks that appear behind airplanes, are one example. But, this guide can help you begin to recognize the difference between a sunny cirrus and a storm-bringing cumulonimbus, and hopefully spark your interest to learn more about clouds.
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