Let me show you something you’ve never seen before — the sky. Yes, you’ve seen it, but have you seen it right now? If it’s afternoon, you can almost bet the sky scene at this moment features a myriad of masses of moisture known as clouds — cumulus clouds, in particular. Summer is the season of cumulus clouds. They form at all times of the year and in all places on Earth, but with endless humidity from the Gulf of Mexico along with high heat, we regularly delight in a full spectrum of the puffy clouds. Cloud names have a Latin origin with a taxonomy that includes genus, species and variations. Cumulus clouds accumulate into piles or mounds. They grow upward.
Like your favorite milkshake, cumulus clouds come in different sizes — small, medium, large and supersized. You’ll spot cumulus humilis (humble accumulation), cumulus mediocris (medium accumulation) and cumulus congestus (congested accumulation). The supersized cumulus cloud typically produces showers and thunderstorms. That is the cumulonimbus (precipitating accumulation).
Like people, cumulus clouds come in different heights or altitudes. Cumulus is the standard or lower level. Those are the classic clouds many of us learned to draw as children. In fact, it’s the one you find as the cloud emoji. The poor stratus cloud gets no respect. Not enough personality, I guess. Altocumulus (middle level) clouds are typically sheets, ripples or rows of puffy clouds, while cirrocumulus (high level) are sheets of teeny, tiny bubbles of cloud. If you’ve got musical skills, think tenor, alto and soprano.
When you take the different sizes and heights and then account for varieties, you get dozens of combinations of cumulus clouds that can exist separately or as a diverse array. They also blend with stratus clouds and sometimes create stratus clouds. Even though we try to put each cloud in a unique identification box, the distinction between types of clouds is often cloudy.
A Gulf Coast afternoon cumulus cloud can grow fast. Record a timelapse on your smartphone of the bubbling clouds to marvel at their rate of ascent and metamorphosis. A growing cumulus cloud has crisp edges like a cauliflower. Those are the ones to watch as potential candidates to deliver a downpour to your lawn or a disappointment to your outing. A fading cumulus cloud will have fuzzy edges.
It’s science and art entertainment to watch the genesis, growth and demise of cumulus clouds while using imagination to think of what shapes or things the clouds remind you of. Cloud thickness and proximity to other clouds, compared to where the sun is, control whether the cloud is bright white or gray, or how much of a yellow, orange or red tint the cloud shows when the sun is near the horizon. Take in the sight of cumulus clouds. It’s free, fun and educational, and will never be repeated exactly as you witness it.
Alan Sealls is the chief meteorologist at NBC15 and an adjunct meteorology professor at the University of South Alabama.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here