Clouds run in 3 different heights or classifications. Based on the clouds location/height in the sky a lot can be determined about the weather you are about to see in 36 hours or less.
(1) Cirrus Cloud: The highest clouds in the sky are of the cirrus family (coming from the Latin word cirrus meaning curl). These clouds are high up (20,000ft.+) clouds that look wispy. Cirrus clouds are composed of ice crystals that originate from the freezing of supercooled water droplets. Cirrus generally occur in fair weather and point in the direction of air movement at their elevation. Often they point to an approaching warm front. Cirrus Cloud
2) Alto Cloud: The clouds below cirrus level fall into the Alto classification (6,000ft – 20,000ft). Alto comes from the Latin altus, meaning high or deep. These clouds are mid-level clouds. These clouds are formed from lofting air and typically precede a cold front.
(3) Connective Clouds: These large clouds form because of large updrafts of warm, moist air moving up into cold air. They are vertically developed and will span from low levels, through the Alto range and even into the cirrus range. This classification includes Nimbostratus and Cumulonimbus clouds which produce rain and storms. The term Nimbus in a cloud dictates that it is a cloud that produces precipitation (coming from the Latin word nimbus = rain). The Cumulonimbus is the cloud that causes thunderstorms and sometimes can develop into a Supercell with tornadoes.
What is a Supercell? A Supercell is a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus cloud) with a deep, persistently rolling updraft (known as a mesocyclone). The supercell can be any size but typically produces heavy hail, torrential rain, strong winds, and substantial downbursts. The downbursts come from cold air in the upper atmosphere racing down to the earth surface.
Overall, Supercells are the main cloud formation to develop tornadoes, however only roughly 30% of supercells produce tornadoes.
Predicting what weather is happening with this knowledge:
- If you see some Cirrus clouds rolling in, you can guess that you will have some great weather in the next 36 hours!
- If you see some Alto clouds floating in, then you had better get ready for some precipitation in the next 36 hours.
- If you see clouds rising up through various heights then you are about to get rained on.
- If the cloud is a cumulonimbus there will probably be a storm, potentially bad.
- If the cumulonimbus forms an anvil, then batten down the hatches – you are about to get clobbered!