6abc Weather School - Looking into the clouds

The answer to the weather is in the clouds!

Meteorologists use a lot of high-tech tools, but you can predict the weather doing some one simple thing: looking at the clouds.

Cloud formations can tell us a lot about impending weather conditions.

Probably the best known cloud type is cumulus.

These are low level clouds, less than 6,500 feet up. They are white and fluffy, like cotton balls. They form from rising air parcels and usually indicate fair, pleasant, weather.

Stratus clouds are also low level clouds, up to 6,500. They differ in that they look like a layer of gray blanketing the sky. They typically form when warm air is lifted over cold air, creating overcast conditions with mist and drizzle.

Cirrus clouds are high level clouds, made of ice crystals more than 20,000 feet in the air. They are thin, wispy and feathery, sometimes called "mare's tails" because they look like the tail of a horse. They often form in fair weather, but if they get lower and thicker, it can be in indication that a storm system is approaching.

Cumulonimbus clouds are large, vertically-stacked clouds that extend from low levels, through mid, up to high levels, reaching as high as 40,000 feet. They are towering, with tops that sometimes look flat, like an anvil, because they have been blown and flattened by strong winds. These clouds bring stormy weather including heavy rain, gusty winds, lightning, and sometimes hail. If you see these clouds forming above you, get inside!

Those are the four main types of clouds, but there are some other very interesting clouds.

Lenticular clouds are smooth, lens-shaped clouds, formed as air is blown up and over a mountain range.

Undulatus asperatus look like waves in the sky. These clouds form when strong winds flow over a thick layer of stable clouds, creating a rolling wave-like formation of the clouds.

Mammatus clouds are kind of upside down clouds that are formed by sinking air behind powerful storms. That's opposite of how most clouds are formed. In these clouds, saturated air loaded with water vapor is heavier than the air around it. This causes the air to sink below the cloud base, essentially forming upside down clouds. By the way, pilots tend to avoid flying through this type of cloud- turbulence is intense!

Another cloud that tends to freak people out is called a shelf cloud. It is a low-hanging, well-defined, wedge-shaped formation that sets up along the leading edge of a gust front in a thunderstorm, on the boundary between a downdraft and updraft in a line of thunderstorms. If you see this heading your way, prepare for strong storms, perhaps severe, with heavy rain, lightning and potentially-damaging winds.

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