Vertically Developed Clouds Probably the most familiar of the classified clouds is the cumulus cloud. Generated most commonly through either thermal convection or frontal lifting, these clouds can grow to heights in excess of 39,000 feet (12,000 meters), releasing incredible amounts of energy through the condensation of water vapor within the cloud itself.

Most clouds and almost all precipitation are produced by the cooling of air as it rises. When air temperature is reduced, excess water vapor in the air condenses into liquid droplets or ice crystals to form clouds or fog. A cloud can take any of several different forms—including cumulus, cirrus, and stratus—reflecting the pattern of air motions that formed it. Fluffy cumulus clouds form from rising masses of air, called thermals. A cumulus cloud often has a flat base, corresponding to the level at which the water vapor first condenses. If a cumulus cloud grows large, it transforms into a cumulonimbus cloud or a thunderstorm. Fibrous cirrus clouds consist of trails of falling ice crystals twisted by the winds. Cirrus clouds usually form high in the troposphere, and their crystals almost never reach the ground. Stratus clouds form when an entire layer of air cools or ascends obliquely. A stratus cloud often extends for hundreds of miles.

Fog is a cloud that touches the ground. In dense fogs, the visibility may drop below 50 m (55 yd). Fog occurs most frequently when the earth’s surface is much colder than the air directly above it, such as around dawn and over cold ocean currents. Fog is thickened and acidified when the air is filled with sulfur-laden soot particles produced by the burning of coal. Dense acid fogs that killed thousands of people in London up to 1956 led to legislation that prohibited coal burning in cities.

Optical phenomena, such as rainbows and halos, occur when light shines through cloud particles. Rainbows are seen when sunlight from behind the observer strikes the raindrops falling from cumulonimbus clouds. The raindrops act as tiny prisms, bending and reflecting the different colors of light back to the observer’s eye at different angles and creating bands of color. Halos are seen when sunlight or moonlight in front of the observer strikes ice crystals and then passes through high, thin cirrostratus clouds.


Cited "Weather," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004 © 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
"Cloud Types," University of Illinois WW2010 Project © 1997 by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. All Rights Reserved.