WNYT Cloud Glossary | WNYT.com

WNYT Cloud Glossary

Allison Finch
Created: October 21, 2020 02:37 PM

Cloud Classification | Weather.gov Cloud Classification | Weather.gov
When looking up at the sky on any given day, you might wonder what types of clouds you are looking at. Generally speaking, all clouds are visible masses of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, typically high above the ground, but there are different classifications of clouds within the sky.

You can break clouds up into three different categories depending on their level in the atmosphere. There are high, middle and low clouds.

High Clouds

Generally 16,500 to 45,000 feet in the atmosphere

  • Cirrus:
    • Wispy, feathery like clouds made up of mostly ice crystals. Wispy shape comes from wind currents that spread out and twist the ice crystals into strands.
  • Cirrostratus:
    • Thin, white clouds that cover the entire sky like a blanket, which are most commonly seen in the winter.
  • Cirrocumulus:
    • Thin, sheet-like clouds are look like they are full of ripples.

Mid-level Clouds

Generally 6,500 to 23,000 feet in the atmosphere

  • Altocumulus:
    • Several patchy white or gray layers with defined edges. Usually made of liquid water and can look like they are full of ripples kind of like cirrocumulus clouds but they are lower in the atmosphere.
  • Altostratus:
    • These clouds are like cirrostratus, but they occur lower in the atmosphere. They usually cover the whole sky in a gray or blue-gray color and are made up of a mixture of ice crystals and liquid water droplets.
  • Nimbostratus:
    • These dark gray clouds often cover the entire sky like a blanket blocking out most of the sunlight. While resembling altostratus, the biggest difference between the two are that nimbostratus clouds are full of liquid water droplets and often produce rain.

Low Clouds

Generally below 6,500 feet in the atmosphere

  • Cumulus:
    • These clouds resemble fluffy white cotton balls with defined edges. These are made up of liquid water droplets.
  • Stratus:
    • Often resembling cirrostratus and altostratus, but located in the lower section of the atmosphere. These clouds are so thin they often do not produce any rain or snow.  
  • Cumulonimbus:
    • These clouds grow on hot days when warm moist air rises into the atmosphere. These clouds can grow so high they resemble mountains or skyscrapers. They produce rainfall, especially in the summer time.
  • Stratocumulus:
    • These clouds are white or gray and they look like altocumulus with the signature ripples or honeycomb appearance, but occur lower in the atmosphere.


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