Types of Clouds and Their Meanings

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There are a lot of different cloud types, and every type has its meaning. Based on the type of clouds, you can know if the weather will change. It’s advantageous to know how the weather will change, based on the clouds you can see. Knowing the types of clouds and their meanings will be very beneficial on those long passages, so that you can alter your sailing course if needed.

You will not always be able to forecast the upcoming weather based solely on the clouds. Still, in combination with knowing the wind direction, you will undoubtedly be able to make an educated guess.

The Basic Cloud Types

There are three distinctive basic cloud types. These three types are based on the structure and form of the clouds. The three cloud type categories are almost always clearly recognizable. These types can all be split up further, that’s when we get to the real cloud types and their appropriate meaning. But first, you will need to understand the three basic cloud types.

Stratus

stratus cloud meaning
Photo by PiccoloNamek (Wikimedia)

The first cloud we will take a look at is the stratus cloud type. Stratus clouds are the lowest-lying clouds of all cloud types. Fog and mist are stratus clouds that lie so low that they touch the earth. Commonly stratus clouds form at about 2000-5000ft. You can recognize stratus clouds from their very flat en smooth underside.

This type of basic cloud is light grey most of the time. Stratus clouds can produce some light rain or drizzle. Stratus clouds can form in different circumstances. Purely based on stratus clouds, you can’t forecast the upcoming weather. But a little further, we will look into the different types of stratus clouds, which can be used to know what is coming your way.

Cumulus

cumulus clouds
Photo by Mabel Amber (Pexels)

If you drew a cloud, there would be a big chance you would draw a cumulus cloud. This type of cloud is pretty distinct. It’s most prominent in the summer months when the temperatures are lower, but they can appear in winter as well. The bottom or base of the cloud is mostly flat and can be dependent on the cloud’s height, and it can be darker grey.

The top and sides of the clouds have a cauliflower-like appearance. This type of cloud is also considered a low cloud and forms between 2000-7000ft. Cumulus clouds can mean two things, and if they are packed together, they can mean that a warm front is coming your way.

If they are scattered throughout the sky, they probably just formed because there is energy in the troposphere. If they keep on growing, there is a chance that they will develop into cumulonimbus clouds; they can bring rain and even thunder.

Cirrus

cirrus clouds

The last type of the three basic types of clouds is the cirrus clouds. In contrast to the last two, this type of cloud is considered a high cloud. They generally form between 10.000 and 20.000ft in the air.

Cirrus clouds are recognizable by the feather-like structures high in the sky. They are almost always white and slightly transparent. Cumulus and Stratus clouds are built up out of little rain particles, but due to the cirrus clouds’ height, cirrus clouds consist of small ice particles.

When the amount of cirrus clouds increases, this can mean that there is a warm front coming your way, especially if there are cumulus clouds present too, more on that later.

The variations of the basic cloud types

We become more types of clouds by combining the basic cloud types and adding a prefix based on the height of the cloud. The high clouds can get the prefix “cirro” coming from cirrus clouds. The middle-high clouds get the prefix “alto” and the low clouds can get the prefix “strato”. There are some exceptions, we will go over all cloud types (including exceptions).

Stratocumulus

Stratocumulus

We will start with the low clouds and work our way up. Stratocumulus clouds are cumulus clouds with a couple of stratus properties. Like cumulus clouds, they have a flat bottom and a more plump upside, but they don’t have that distinctive cauliflower shape in contrast to cumulus clouds.

They can form in rows, in fields, or on their own. Stratocumulus clouds form when the conditions are quiet. There most likely won’t be any fronts nearby when you encounter these clouds, except if they go accompanied by other clouds that do indicate a front moving in.

Nimbostratus

Nimbostratus

This type of cloud generally forms between 3000 and 15000ft, this is a big range because this type of cloud is pretty thick. Nimbostratus looks a lot like stratus clouds, with a flat underside.

But the critical difference between these clouds is that nimbostratus clouds bring rain. Sometimes you can see the rain falling, these are called “virgas.” Nimbostratus clouds are present on warm fronts. When these clouds accompany you, you can expect some hours of precipitation.

Altostratus

Altostratus

Altostratus clouds are essentially just stratus clouds but a little higher and thinner than stratus clouds. The sun is visible through altostratus clouds as a white spot. As the name suggests, altostratus clouds are a middle-level cloud (alto is the prefix for middle-high clouds).

The color of these clouds is, most of the time, light grey. Altostratus clouds can generate some light precipitation, but most precipitation is still to come because a warm front is probably heading your way.

Altocumulus

Altocumulus

This is the second and last type of the category of the middle-high clouds. They form between 7000 and 15.000ft in the sky.

You can recognize them by these small, almost independent cotton ball-like clouds that form a big field. Altocumulus clouds do not generate any precipitation.

If you see them in the morning, it can mean that the air is humid, and some thunderstorms could develop in the afternoon. If darker low clouds accompany them, it indicates that a cold front is coming.

Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus

Apart from the cirrus clouds, there are two other types of clouds in the high cloud category. The cirrocumulus cloud is one of them. They form between 16.000 and 40.000ft. This is about the same height as cirrus clouds.

Cirrocumulus clouds look a lot like altocumulus clouds. They too have a cotton ball-like structure. If the layer of cirrocumulus clouds isn’t that thick, the clouds are white. If the layer is thicker and there is less sunlight let through, the clouds can take a greyish color.

It will never rain or snow out of these clouds. This type of cloud does not have a specific meaning. You can observe them under different circumstances. But most of the time, if you see this cloud type, the chances of rain aren’t that big. Cirrocumulus clouds can be a result of the degeneration of cirrus and cirrostratus clouds.

Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus

The last type of cloud in the high cloud category is the cirrostratus cloud. This cloud forms between 20.000 and 40.000ft. You can recognize this type of cloud by the haze like texture.

The sun can shine easily through the clouds most of the time, often you can even see the blue sky through the cirrostratus clouds. When the clouds are thicker, it creates a milky white or light grey sky. Often the sky is filled with these clouds, just like stratus clouds.

If you’re lucky, the sun can create optical phenomena, like a circle around the sun or parhelia. Parhelia are one or more (maximum four) bright spots around the sun. Due to the low temperatures so high in the atmosphere, the cloud consists of ice particles. If the cirrostratus clouds get thicker and thicker, and the sun is less and less able to shine through the clouds, it indicates that a warm front is coming your way.

Cumulonimbus

Cumulonimbus

The last cloud type is probably the most spectacular. This type of cloud is responsible for a lot, from just rain on a cold front to the deadliest tornadoes that hit the USA. This is an impressive cloud, the most special of them all.

It’s not categorized in any of the categories we saw earlier, it has its own category: the vertical clouds category. A cumulonimbus cloud is essentially an evolved cumulus cloud. When there is enough energy available in the troposphere, cumulus clouds can grow vertically into cumulonimbus clouds. Cumulonimbus clouds almost always bring rain with them. They can be embedded in a front, but they can be on their own too (like in the picture above).

Eventually, if there is enough energy, the rain shower can grow out into a thunderstorm. The thunderstorm can produce large hail and tornadoes or waterspouts. When you see these big cumulonimbus clouds, be prepared for some bad stormy weather.

Types of Clouds and Their Meanings Wrap Up

I hope you better understand the different cloud types to help you with your next passage. Knowing the types of clouds and their meanings can be very helpful, and it can make for a fun game trying to guess what weather you will encounter next.

Happy Sailing!

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