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How to Identify the 10 Different Types of Clouds

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Jun 22, 2018 4:00:00 PM

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Do you need to know the different types of clouds for school, or are you just interested in what’s up there in the sky? At first glance, all clouds can look pretty much the same, but with a bit of knowledge and practice you can soon learn how to tell exactly which kind of cloud you’re looking at.

In this guide, we show you all the steps to becoming a cloud-identifying expert. We’ll go over the ten main types of clouds and give you the info you need to identify each cloud type, including cloud names, their shape, height in the sky, color, and the weather you can expect them to bring.

We’ll end with some additional tips for identifying clouds, including easy tricks to differentiate similar-looking cloud types.

 

The 10 Main Types of Clouds

How many types of clouds are there? Generally speaking, there are ten main types of clouds you’ll see in the sky, and we discuss each of them below. For each of these different types of clouds, we’ve included a picture of the cloud, a short description, and the following additional information:

  • Height: Where in the sky the cloud typically occurs (low-level, mid-level, or high-level)
  • Color: The color of the cloud
  • Shape: The form the cloud typically takes
  • Weather: The weather the cloud is usually associated with or predicts

 

Altocumulus

altocumulus

Image source: Angelo Su/Flickr

  • Height: Mid
  • Color: White
  • Shape: Heap-like and often grouped together
  • Weather: Varies

Altocumulus clouds are fairly common clouds that look like round white or gray patches in the sky. They are sometimes grouped in parallel lines and have been described as looking similar to tufts of wool or fish scales.

 

Altostratus

altostratus

Image source: Wonderlane/Flickr (cropped from original)

  • Height: Mid
  • Color: White or light gray
  • Shape: Thick and flat
  • Weather: Usually indicate warmer weather is approaching; can cause light precipitation

These clouds form a white or gray layer that blankets the sky at mid-level. There are usually no patches of blue sky when these clouds appear, but the sun is often visible as a dimly lit disk behind the clouds (although no shadows appear on the ground).

 

Cirrocumulus

cirrocumulus

  • Height: High
  • Color: White or gray
  • Shape: Rows of small patchy clouds
  • Weather: Typically sunny and cold

Cirrocumulus clouds are much smaller than most other types of clouds, and they are sometimes called cloudlets. They are found at high altitudes and are made of ice crystals. They often are arranged in parallel rows. They are one of the rarer types of clouds and usually don’t last long.

 

Cirrostratus

 Cirrostratus

Image source: aivas14/Flickr

  • Height: High
  • Color: Transparent/white
  • Shape: Wispy, but thicker than cirrus clouds
  • Weather: Varies

These are transparent, wispy clouds that cover most or all of the sky. The best identifier for cirrostratus clouds is a halo or ring of light surrounding the sun or moon.

 

Cirrus

 cirrus

  • Height: High
  • Color: White
  • Shape: Wispy or feathery
  • Weather: May mean a warm front is approaching

Wispy clouds located high in the atmosphere are likely cirrus clouds. They are thin and white with lots of blue sky visible. They can occur in fair weather or when a warm front or large storm is approaching.

 

Cumulonimbus

cumulonimbus

  • Height: Low (although can span all layers)
  • Color: Pale to dark gray
  • Shape: Dense and towering
  • Weather: Thunderstorms

Cumulonimbus are the classic “thunderstorm clouds” and are large towering clouds that are often dark in color. Seeing them is a sign that a storm is likely on its way. They can be very large, appearing like a mountain (sometimes with a flat top).

 

Cumulus

cumulus

  • Height: Low
  • Color: White
  • Shape: Fluffy, tall, often described as looking similar to cauliflower
  • Weather: Typically sunny

The stereotypical puffy cloud you probably drew a lot of when you were a kid, cumulus clouds are dense individual clouds that are bright white on top and gray underneath. They typically appear earlier in the day when it’s sunny.

 

Nimbostratus

nimbostratus

Image source: KNOW MALTA by Peter Grima/Flickr

  • Height: Low
  • Color: Dark gray
  • Shape: Large thick layer
  • Weather: Steady rain or snow

Nimbostratus clouds form a thick, dark layer across the sky. They are often thick enough to blot out the sun. Like cumulonimbus clouds, they are associated with heavy precipitation, but, unlike cumulonimbus, you can’t pick out individual nimbostratus clouds.

 

Stratocumulus

stratocumulus

  • Height: Low
  • Color: White
  • Shape: Fluffy
  • Weather: Appear before or after a front/when there is weak convection in the atmosphere

Stratocumulus clouds are somewhat similar to cumulus clouds but are flatter, thicker, and darker. There is less blue sky between the clouds, and the weather will appear more cloudy than sunny.

 

Stratus

stratus

Image source: Wikimedia commons

  • Height: Low
  • Color: Gray or white
  • Shape: Featureless flat layer
  • Weather: Gloomy weather, sometimes with light precipitation

Similar to fog (but on the horizon instead of on the ground), stratus clouds are a gray featureless layer of clouds that cover all or most of the sky.

 

Tips for Identifying Different Types of Clouds

Even meteorologists can sometimes struggle with identifying certain clouds, so it helps to have a few tricks to fall back on. Use the following four tips to help you differentiate the various cloud types and figure out which type is currently in the sky.

 

#1: Figure Out the Shape

Typically, the easiest way to tell different types of clouds apart is by looking at their shape There are three main different cloud shapes, and they all look quite different from one another, so identifying the shape will help you narrow down your options easily before moving onto other steps and identifiers to determine which specific cloud type you’re looking at.

Below are the three main cloud shapes (along with the cloud names) and the types of clouds that fall under them.

      • Puffy (Cumulo-form)
        • Cumulus
        • Altocumulus
        • Stratocumulus
        • Cumulonimbus
        • Cirrocumulus
      • Thick layer (Strato-form)
        • Stratus
        • Altostratus
        • Nimbostratus
      • Wispy (Cirro-form)
        • Cirrus
        • Cirrostratus

 

#2: Look at Where They Are in the Sky

Once you’ve figured out the shape, the next step is to determine where the cloud is in the sky: low, mid, or high-level. This is a bit trickier than just deciding on shape and can take some practice to get good at it, but once you can reliably tell where a cloud is in the sky along with its shape, you often have enough info to correctly identify it.

      • High-Level
        • Cirrus
        • Cirrostratus
        • Cirrocumulus
      • Mid-Level
        • Altostratus
        • Altocumulus
      • Low-Level
        • Stratus
        • Stratocumulus
        • Cumulus
        • Nimbostratus
        • Cumulonimbus (although can span all layers)

 

#3: Consider the Weather

When you’re trying to identify clouds, don’t just focus on the clouds themselves; remember to look at the rest of the sky. The current or expected weather can help you with cloud identification, since many clouds are associated with a particular type of weather.

      • Sunny Weather
        • Cirrocumulus
        • Cumulus
      • Gloom and/or Steady Precipitation
        • Stratus
        • Nimbostratus
        • Altostratus
      • Storms
        • Cumulonimbus
      • Variable Weather
        • Stratocumulus
        • Cirrus
        • Cirrostratus
        • Altocumulus

 

#4: Know Tricks for Identifying Similar-Looking Clouds

Even after you’ve sorted the kinds of clouds you’re looking at into the correct categories based on shape, height in the sky, and accompanying weather, you may still be struggling between a couple different cloud types. And it’s true, there are some cloud types that look very similar to each other.

Below are some tips for differentiating between similar-looking cloud pairs.

 

Cirrus vs Cirrostratus

Both these cloud types have similar wispy shapes, but cirrostratus clouds cover much more of the sky compared to cirrus clouds. Cirrus clouds will have lots of blue sky accompanying them, while for cirrostratus clouds, little or no sky will be visible, and the sun will likely be behind the clouds (typically with a “halo” around it).

 

Cumulus vs Stratocumulus

Both of these clouds have a puffy shape, but stratocumulus clouds have a more flattened, thicker, and darker appearance compared to cumulus clouds, which look more like puffs of cotton.

 

Altocumulus vs Stratocumulus

These two kinds of clouds look similar, but they are different sizes. If you hold your hand up to the sky, a stratocumulus cloud will be about the size of your first, while an altocumulus cloud will be closer in size to your thumb.

 

Stratus vs Nimbostratus vs Altostratus

These three cloud types can be difficult to tell apart since they all have a similar shape. Below is a unique identifier for each one.

  • Stratus: Cloud type lowest to the ground; just slightly higher than fog. Can cause light precipitation.
  • Nimbostratus: The cliché “rain” cloud; dark in color and accompanied by steady precipitation.
  • Altostratus: Less thick and doesn’t produce precipitation.

 

Summary: What Are the Types of Clouds?

If can be difficult to keep track of cloud names and the main types of clouds when you’re not sure what you’re looking for. Fortunately, a bit of studying is all that is required to easily identify most clouds. There are ten main types of clouds:

    • Altocumulus
    • Altostratus
    • Cirrocumulus
    • Cirrostratus
    • Cirrus
    • Cumulonimbus
    • Cumulus
    • Nimbostratus
    • Stratocumulus
    • Stratus

You can identify these different kinds of clouds in three main ways:

    • Shape
    • Height in sky
    • Accompanying weather

There are also various tips you can use to differentiate between two types of clouds that look similar.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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