Clouds and Weather Forecasting

It’s a bunny. No, it’s a bird. Wait, now it’s a dragon. Cloud-watching while lazing on an ridgetop can be filled with child-like wonder, but knowing that cirrostratus clouds usually means warm weather and stratocumulus means a cold front is on its way can be a valuable outdoor skill.
High cirrus cloud. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
Cirrostratus? Stratocumulus? Obviously forecasting weather involves more than just cloud-watching, but as with any new skill, it pays to start by learning what the basic terminology means.
Highs and Lows of Cloud Watching
Stratus = low clouds (below 6,000 feet)
Altostratus = middle clouds (6,000 to 20,000 feet)
Cirrus = high clouds (above 18,000 feet)
Cumulus = clouds rising vertically
Clouds Typically Seen Ahead of Warm Fronts
  • Cirrocumulus (cotton balls tossed high in the sky, a.k.a. “mackerel sky”)
  • Cirrostratus (wavy)
  • Altostratus
  • Nimbostratus
Clouds Typically Seen Ahead of Cold Fronts
  • Cumulus (puffy)
  • Altocumulus
  • Cumulonimbus (thunder clouds)
  • Stratocumulus (sheets of thick and lumpy clouds)
Did You Know?
If “nimbo” appears at the beginning of a cloud name or “nimbus” appears at the end, it is a rain cloud.
Now that you know that cumulonimbus clouds mean time to batten down the hatches while cirrocumulus means warm weather ahead, dress accordingly, get outside and start garnering a little more cloud watching knowledge.

© 2011

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