The ‘Unifying Nature’ Of Clouds: Take A Tour Of The Sky With The Cloud Appreciation Society10:56
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A formation of Altocumulus lenticularis, bathed in the glow of sunset, mimics the contours and strata of the Grand Canyon below. Spotted over Arizona, US by John Bigelow Taylor and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (John Bigelow Taylor)
A formation of Altocumulus lenticularis, bathed in the glow of sunset, mimics the contours and strata of the Grand Canyon below. Spotted over Arizona, US by John Bigelow Taylor and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (John Bigelow Taylor)

Members of the Cloud Appreciation Society proudly walk around with their heads in the clouds.

Founded in 2005, the group — which is comprised of more than 48,000 cloud marvellers and spans 120 countries — are everyday people on the lookout for “weird clouds,” founder Gavin Pretor-Pinney says.

They’ve even helped the World Meteorological Organization to acknowledge a new type of cloud called asperitas — wavy, thick clouds that resemble snorkeling underwater on a turbulent day, Pretor-Pinney describes.

Asperitas clouds spotted over Burnie, Tasmania, Australia, by Gary McArthur and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Gary McArthur)
Asperitas clouds spotted over Burnie, Tasmania, Australia, by Gary McArthur and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Gary McArthur)

They were able to get the asperitas published in the new edition of the International Cloud Atlas.

For a cloud’s name to be official in the meteorological world, he says, it has to be published in the atlas.

These non-professional weather watchers with an affinity for clouds are linked through the internet. Pretor-Pinney says most members snap overcast moments on their smartphones, then post to the society’s website picture gallery.

High clouds, such as altostratus or cirrus, are made from small ice crystals of water, he says, while low clouds, such as cumulus, are made from tiny droplets of water.

Cumulus fractus spotted from the flight deck over the Swiss Alps by John Gale and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (John Gale)
Cumulus fractus spotted from the flight deck over the Swiss Alps by John Gale and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (John Gale)
Altocumulus lacunosus, spotted over Owens Valley, California, by Stephen Ingram and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Stephen Ingram)
Altocumulus lacunosus, spotted over Owens Valley, California, by Stephen Ingram and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Stephen Ingram)

“Typical cumulus clouds are low clouds you see on sunny days. If you add together all the droplets — [it’s the] same weight as 80 elephants — they're really heavy in terms of the water but they're in the form of tiny droplets so they all stay aloft in the air,” he says.

The number of clouds in the world is infinite, and similar to a snowflake, each one is unique. In 1802, Luke Howard devised a Latin-based system, and developed names that are still used today, such as cumulus, stratus, cirrus and so on.

Howard wanted a “language for the sky” to help communication between sky observers worldwide, Pretor-Pinney says.

Cloud varieties into recognizable types, he says. Then there are specific classifications based on characteristics that make the cloud distinct.

Altocumulus lenticularis cloud over the east end of the French Pyrenees mountain range near the border with Spain, spotted by Ian Boyd Young and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Ian Boyd Young)
Altocumulus lenticularis cloud over the east end of the French Pyrenees mountain range near the border with Spain, spotted by Ian Boyd Young and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Ian Boyd Young)

There are certain regions where you’re more likely to see certain types. Pretor-Pinney points out the stationary altocumulus lenticularis cloud, Latin for “lentil,” which resembles a UFO. Their saucer-like appearance forms as air flows over a mountainous region and “takes on a wave-like path,” he says.

Simply put, the same type of clouds can be spotted all across the world, something Pretor-Pinney finds comforting.

“That's one of the real important things for me with society,” he says, “is the unifying nature of being engaged with the sky.”

Mamma clouds, spotted over Cap Ferret, France, spotted by Katalin Vancsura and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Katalin Vancsura)
Mamma clouds, spotted over Cap Ferret, France, spotted by Katalin Vancsura and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Katalin Vancsura)

But what is it about clouds that make us lay on our backs and look up at the sky? Or stare out of an airplane window and descend into daydreams?

Pretor-Pinney says people can create a nostalgic relationship with the sky, often times formed from connections with looking at clouds when they were young.

A tuba descending from a storm system over Keenesburg, Colorado, spotted by Carlye Calvin and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Carlye Calvin)
A tuba descending from a storm system over Keenesburg, Colorado, spotted by Carlye Calvin and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Carlye Calvin)

Clouds gazing could also improve outlook and personal well-being, he says. Dazing into the sky can provide a wider “perspective on the stresses and strains down here on the ground,” he says.

When you look up at the atmosphere, you are “physically lifting your vision and you’re symbolically moving your attention away from looking down.”

Fluctus clouds curling like peaks of meringue over the Green Mountains near Starksboro, Vermont, spotted by Keith Edmunds and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Keith Edmunds)
Fluctus clouds curling like peaks of meringue over the Green Mountains near Starksboro, Vermont, spotted by Keith Edmunds and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Keith Edmunds)

Carrying stress or looking down at our mobile devices, for example, can keep us from directing our attention upward.

Because we “all inhabit the same sky,” clouds can also act as a unifier — something Pretor-Pinney has found especially true within his Cloud Appreciation Society.

Volutus, or roll cloud, ahead of a developing Cumulonimbus, spotted over Zandvoort, The Netherlands, by Ko van Hespen and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Ko van Hespen)
Volutus, or roll cloud, ahead of a developing Cumulonimbus, spotted over Zandvoort, The Netherlands, by Ko van Hespen and published in A Cloud A Day from the Cloud Appreciation Society. (Ko van Hespen)

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on October 11, 2019.

Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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Serena McMahon is a digital producer for Here & Now.

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