I want to talk about clouds. Intellectually, I know they’re just masses of foggy moisture suspended in the ocean of air above us. But I’m here to say they’re more than that.
I’ve lived under clouds for 21 years, and yet I only really started to look up a few years back, when I stumbled onto the Cloud Appreciation Society. With a manifesto that pledges to do away with the banality of “blue-sky thinking,” the society aims to rekindle an appreciation of clouds.
Cloudspotting, I learned, was the act of looking up and paying close attention to nature’s nebulous display. Much like bird watchers document a recent feathered find, cloudspotters witness and document different cloud formations. Members of the Cloud Appreciation Society share images of some of their favorite finds, and users can comment and add their own pictures to the conversation. “It reminds me [of] a dream’s beginning, of hypnagogic images beginning to take shape, seductive sirens of that other world,” wrote one member after posting a picture of wispy cirrus clouds.
Cloudspotting isn’t just waxing poetic; there’s science here. There are around 100 different kinds of clouds but, for the sake of simplicity, they are grouped into 10 genera each subdivided into cloud species and varieties based on their height, shape and internal structure, according to the International Cloud Atlas. The science is still evolving, too—last year, new clouds were added to the atlas for the first time in three decades.
And each one really does lend itself to waxing poetic. Once you’re paying attention, it’s easy to marvel at how the sun peeks out from under a brilliant white fluffy cumulus cloud. It’s easy to contemplate how cirrus clouds, with their delicate brush-stroke appearance, resemble an ever-changing impressionist painting or how lenticular clouds, with their oval lens-like structure, are so other-worldly.
Part of the appeal of clouds is what they tell us about the world around us. Cumulus clouds typically indicate nice weather but, under certain circumstances, they can grow upwards to become the mother of all clouds: a precipitation-bearing cumulonimbus cloud. These dark towering beasts reach high into the troposphere, where their anvil-shaped tops start to crystallize. Cirrus clouds, on the other hand, are composed entirely of ice crystals. These common clouds’ distinctive thin wavy streaks form in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, generally suggesting fair weather.
Some of the rarest clouds only form under truly special conditions. Take the Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds that resemble breaking ocean waves. When the differing wind speeds above and below the cloud are just right, it results in undulations with curled over vortices. Spotting one in the sky is my Everest.
Clouds often get a bad rep—they’re used in metaphors and idioms to represent doom and gloom or overall disconnectedness. But I’ve learned that though these ephemeral phenomena can certainly be ominous at times, they can also bring with them beauty and whimsy.
Wherever we are, the sky is full of fantastical things to see. We just have to pay attention.