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!