Compleat Naturalist: Cloudspotting

By Laura and Hal Mahan

One day after work, I walked to my car and looked up. There was the strangest cloud I had ever seen! It was certainly unlike any usual clouds. I studied it more. How would I describe it so that I could look up the cloud type later? It was round. It looked like a lens, flat on the bottom and curved like an upside-down bowl. It looked like a flying saucer. Fascinating!

As soon as I got home I looked in a weather field guide and discovered that the cloud I saw is called a lenticular cloud. That made sense, since lenticular means lens-shaped. Lenticular clouds, I read, are usually seen only in mountainous terrain. How lucky we are to live in the mountains! This rarity is caused by moist stable air meeting up with wind swirling over higher ground.

It reminded me that sometimes we forget to look at things that are the easiest to observe. After all, to look at clouds you need no special tools, no binoculars, telescope or microscope. They are right there above us and all we need do is look up or out the window.

Just like anything in nature you can appreciate clouds for many different reasons. Look up and see a fluffy bear or a roaring dragon. Let your imagination run wild. Or look up and identify the cloud type to determine what type of weather system might be coming. This is a very useful skill if you are a hiker, as the weather here can change at a moment’s notice.

The study of clouds has a name: nephology. There is also an official cloud-naming group under the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations. They began publishing the International Cloud Atlas in 1896, which describes clouds in a systematic order with 10 genera, 14 species, 9 varieties and dozens of “accessory clouds.” Those of us untrained in this science know them under the more general shape words such as cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Other words are added to describe their general height above ground, such as with altocumulus.

Most of us won’t want to reduce clouds to Latin names and rigid classifications. After all, they move with the wind, are ever-changing, beautiful, sometimes threatening and can be made to be in our minds whatever we wish to see. I believe I see a dragon’s head in that altocumulus castellanus. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.

Check it out:
Book: The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
App: Cloud-a-Day, from The Cloud Appreciation Society. See cloud types, identify clouds, learn about what makes them special and save your own collection of cloud photos.
Article: “The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community” in New York Times Magazine, May, 2016

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.

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