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There are many different types of clouds that form in the sky. In this video lesson you will learn about how clouds form, as well as the different types of clouds and how they are classified.

What Are Clouds?

Have you ever noticed how many different types of clouds appear in the sky? There are large fluffy ones, thin gray ones, light wispy ones and even ones that seem to cover the entire sky. Though they look different, all clouds are condensed water droplets in the air.They form when warm, moist air rises upward.

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As the warm air rises, it cools. Cool air can’t hold as much water as warm air, so it’s like pouring a large glass of water into a smaller one. Except instead of spilling over the glass, the water in the air condenses around dust particles that are floating around.

As these droplets build up in the sky, they form a cloud.

Types of Clouds

Clouds are usually grouped into different types based on their altitude (how high they are in the sky) and their shape. There are ten cloud shapes that fall into four major altitude groups.

High clouds are just what they sound like – clouds that are at high altitudes. These usually form about 6,000 meters in the sky. There are three types of high clouds, all containing the word ‘cirrus.

‘ The word ‘cirrus’ means ‘wispy hair’ in Latin, and these clouds definitely live up to their name.Cirrus clouds are thin and wispy, sometimes called ‘horse tail’ clouds. Cirrocumulus clouds are the big, puffy clouds that look like a big head of curly hair. Cirrostratus clouds are like big sheets of thin clouds covering the sky, and this makes sense because the word ‘stratus’ means ‘sheet-like.

‘ So this last type of cloud is a big, wispy sheet in the sky.You probably guessed where middle clouds hang out! These are clouds at mid-level altitude. Usually found between 2,000 and 6,000 meters, middle clouds get the prefix ‘alto’ because alto means ‘middle.’There are two types of middle clouds. Altostratus have that word ‘stratus’ in them, so we know these are large sheets of clouds.

They are gray in color, cover the entire sky and are often so thick that they disrupt sunlight coming into the ground so much that shadows aren’t produced on the ground. These usually form before a storm, so head inside if you see these!Altocumulus are like the cirrocumulus in that they are puffy (note that same suffix ‘cumulus’), but these are very dark in color and tend to form puffy masses in parallel bands across the sky.Low clouds are clouds at low altitude, usually below 2,000 meters. There are three types of low clouds, all called ‘stratus.’ You now know this means they cover the entire sky, but this time, much closer to the surface of the Earth. Stratus clouds are what you see on a dreary, hazy day.

Stratocumulus are also low and gray, but since they have the word ‘cumulus’ in them, this means that they have a bit more shape to them. These are lumpy layers across the sky, though they rarely produce rain. Nimbostratus clouds are the ones that make you want to just stay inside all day.

They are dark and wet looking, and often produce a decent amount of rain.Finally, we have vertical clouds, which are clouds that form vertically instead of horizontally. There are two types of vertical clouds, cumulus and cumulonimbus. Since they both have the word ‘cumulus’ in them, we know that they are both big, fluffy clouds. Cumulus clouds are the ones you can see shapes in when you look up at them in the sky.Remember the nimbostratus clouds and how dark and foreboding they were? Well, think of ‘nimbus’ as a cloud to stay far away from, since cumulonimbus clouds are also dark and rainy. Cumulonimbus clouds often turn into thunderheads, which is when a cloud develops into a thunderstorm.

Lesson Summary

Clouds come in all shapes and sizes, but they all form from water droplet condensation around particles in the air. When warm, moist air rises upward, it cools. But like a smaller glass, cool air can’t hold as much water as warm air, so the water condenses around particles floating around. If enough water droplets and particles build up, we get a cloud.There are ten types of clouds based on their shape, and they fall into four main categories based on their altitude.

The names of the categories tell you where you can find them in the sky. High clouds are clouds at high altitudes, above 6,000 meters.Middle clouds are clouds found at mid-level altitudes, between 2,000 and 6,000 meters. Anything below 2,000 meters, so clouds found at low altitudes are low clouds. The final category is vertical clouds, and these are special because they form vertically instead of horizontally.

There are three types of high clouds. They all contain the word ‘cirrus’ because cirrus means ‘wispy hair,’ and this is just what these clouds look like. Cirrus clouds are also called ‘horse tail’ clouds because they are like thin wisps of hair high in the sky. Cirrocumulus clouds look like a curly head of hair floating about, and cirrostratus clouds are thin and sheet-like because this is what ‘stratus’ means.There are two types of middle clouds, both called ‘alto’ clouds.

This is because ‘alto’ means ‘middle.’ Altostratus clouds are mid-level, sheet-like clouds that are bluish gray and cover the entire sky. Altocumulus clouds have that word ‘cumulus,’ so these are puffy clouds, but they tend to form in large bands across the sky.Low clouds come in three forms, and all have the word ‘stratus’ in their name because they cover the sky like a gray sheet. Stratus are what you might see on a hazy winter day. Stratocumulus have our ‘cumulus’ descriptor in their name, so we know these have some shape.

They are lumpy, gray clouds that do not usually produce rain. Nimbostratus are dark, looming clouds that are wet looking and do produce rain.Two types of vertical clouds exist. Cumulus clouds are the ones that you can look up at and see shapes.

They grow taller than they do wide, and are like a big cotton ball in the sky. And just like nimbostratus clouds are dark and foreboding, cumulonimbus clouds are also dark and stormy. Thunderhead clouds are formed from cumulonimbus clouds, so if you see one in the sky, you may want to rethink that afternoon picnic!

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Define cloud
  • Name the three kinds of high clouds
  • Describe the types of middle clouds
  • Discuss low clouds and vertical clouds

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