Cloud Puzzle

They ain’t all gonna be easy.

Here’s my first little puzzle, a set of clouds headed at us from the west about a week ago:


At least two different cloud types, possibly at two different heights?


The lower layer of clouds here – the part nearest the trees in the picture – looks like light gray icing smoothed over an upside down cake.  (Side note:  for the world’s best gray icing, see Steel Magnolias.)  It covers a large portion of the sky like a blanket, and this makes me think it’s some form of stratus cloud(s).

For those who aren’t total word nerds like myself, stratus (plural: strata) comes from the Latin for “a spreading” and refers generally to something spread out in a horizontal layer.  This bottom set of clouds definitely seems spread out, though the base isn’t completely uniform.

I’m guessing it’s stratocumulus, because perhaps the texture of the base indicates the “clumpy”-ness that The Cloud Collector’s Handbook talks about.  Also, stratocumulus are among the most common types of clouds, and as a naturalist, I know to guess that something new is the common thing, rather than a rare exotic.

Here I can’t help but quote the wise Dr. Theodore Woodward, of the Maryland (my new state!) University School of Medicine, who taught his students “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”

I think this horse is stratocumulus.

As for the awesome, diagnoal stripes of clouds in the upper portion of the photo, I’m going to be a little bit brave in identifying them as “undulatus”.  Six of the ten main cloud types have undulatus varieties.  Undulatus means exactly what you think it does – undulating like ripples or waves.

These undulations are often found at the upper edge of a set of clouds where the atmosphere is moving in a different direction.

I love what the Handbook’s author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, says about undulatus clouds:

“Their presence is a reminder, to any who might forget, that the atmosphere around us is just as much as an ocean as the sea below.”




Beginner’s Luck and a New Favorite Word

After two straight days of clear blue skies (oh, my life is soooo hard) I finally caught a photo of a new cloud to share.

Introducing . . . Cirrocumulus!


A patch of cirrocumulus high in the sky over my street.

Not only is this bad boy worth 40 points in my Cloud Collector’s Handbook, reading the description introduced me to my new favorite word:  “cloudlet”.

A cirrocumulus cloud is actually composed of many little cloudlets, which gives it what the Handbook calls a “grainy” appearance, but looks to me more like foam left on the beach by a receding wave.

How does one tell a cloudlet from a cloud?  Stand back for the super-complicated scientific method here:  the cloudlet must be smaller than your pinkie finger when your hand is held out at arm’s length.

The cloudlets that make up cirrocumulus are made of tiny ice crystals – it’s too cold for water where these clouds live, usually more than five miles above our heads.

Cirrocumulus are also uncommon and evanescent – these fair weather fellows dissipate quickly, hence the high point value.  Glad I took a moment to look up!




Looking Up

It’s been a hectic summer dealing with two new jobs, a new school, and life in a new town/state/ecosystem . . . but the chaos has (at least temporarily) calmed down now and it’s time to capitalize on that by getting back outside.

But how to transition this Mountain Woman’s blog into a Water Woman’s blog?

By writing about something that covers them both – the big, blue blanket of clouds and sky.

Many years ago I purchased The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, promising myself that “one of these days” I’d start using the book to refine my knowledge of the different types of clouds and their implications regarding weather.


The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney both teaches you about the different types of clouds (there are dozens) and provides you with journaling space so that you can keep track of what you’ve seen.  It even gives each type of cloud a different number of points, so you can keep score.

Well, folks, “one of these days” is today!  I turned 39 a few days ago and I’ve decided to spend my 40th trip around the sun quite literally looking up.

As if I ever needed an excuse to spend time staring into the sky.

I walked out my front door and took five steps down my sidewalk to capture the following picture of my first cloud collected.


Cumulus fractus – the first cloud of a million-cloud journey.

It’s a simple cumulus – one of those bright white cottony puffs so familiar studding beautiful blue skies on happy, sunny days.  The Cloud Collector’s Handbook further educates me that this “species” is cumulus fractus – a broken cloud with ragged edges that appear as it evaporates.

It’s worth 15 points.

And, with those points in my pocket, I’m going out to enjoy the fair weather that those cumulus clouds indicate – it’s 75 degrees with 12mph winds (thank you, Hurricane Hermine) and a perfect day for gardening.  That is, if I can manage to keep my eyes on the ground.