The 10 Basic Types of Clouds

According to the World Meteorological Organization's International Cloud Atlas, more than 100 types of clouds exist. The many variations, however, can be grouped into one of 10 basic types depending on their general shape and height in the sky. Thus, the 10 types are:

  • Low-level clouds (cumulus, stratus, stratocumulus) that lie below 6,500 feet (1,981 m)
  • Middle clouds (altocumulus, nimbostratus, altostratus) that form between 6,500 and 20,000 feet (1981–6,096 m)
  • High-level clouds (cirrus, cirrocumulus, cirrostratus) that form above 20,000 feet (6,096 m)
  • Cumulonimbus, which tower across the low, middle, and upper atmosphere

Whether you're interested in cloud watching or are just curious to know what clouds are overhead, read on to find out how to recognize them and what type of weather you can expect from each.

10 Basic Types of Clouds

Cumulus

Cumulus clouds are the clouds you learned to draw at an early age and that serve as the symbol of all clouds (much like the snowflake symbolizes winter). Their tops are rounded, puffy, and a brilliant white when sunlit, while their bottoms are flat and relatively dark..

Stratus

Stratus clouds hang low in the sky as a flat, featureless, uniform layer of grayish cloud. They resemble fog that hugs the horizon (instead of the ground). we see these alot over Cornwall

Stratocumulus

If you took an imaginary knife and spread cumulus clouds together across the sky but not into a smooth layer (like stratus), you'd get stratocumulus

Altocumulus

Altocumulus clouds are the most common clouds in the middle atmosphere. You'll recognize them as white or gray patches that dot the sky in large, rounded masses or clouds that are aligned in parallel bands. They look like the wool of sheep or scales of mackerel fish

Nimbostratus

Nimbostratus clouds cover the sky in a dark gray layer. They can extend from the low and middle layers of the atmosphere and are thick enough to blot out the sun.

Altostratus

Altostratus appear as gray or bluish-gray sheets of cloud that partially or totally cover the sky at mid-levels. Even though they cover the sky, you can typically still see the sun as a dimly lit disk behind them.

10 Basic Types of Clouds

Cirrus

Like their name suggests (which is Latin for "curl of hair"), cirrus are thin, white, wispy strands of clouds that streak across the sky. Because cirrus clouds appear above 20,000 feet (6,096 m)

Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus clouds are small, white patches of clouds often arranged in rows that live at high altitudes and are made of ice crystals. Called "cloudlets," 

Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus clouds are transparent, whitish clouds that veil or cover nearly the entire sky. A dead giveaway to distinguishing cirrostratus is to look for a "halo" (a ring or circle of light) around the sun or moon

Cumulonimbus

umulonimbus clouds are one of the few clouds that span the low, middle, and high layers. They resemble the cumulus clouds from which they grow, except they rise into towers with bulging upper portions that look like cauliflower.

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