Cloud Types

Cloud Types
common cloud classifications
Clouds are classified into a system that uses Latin words to describe the appearance of clouds as seen by an observer on the ground. The table below summarizes the four principal components of this classification system (Ahrens, 1994).

Latin RootTranslationExample
curl of hair
fair weather cumulus
Further classification identifies clouds by height of cloud base. For example, cloud names containing the prefix "cirr-", as in cirrus clouds, are located at high levels while cloud names with the prefix "alto-", as in altostratus, are found at middle levels. This module introduces several cloud groups. The first three groups are identified based upon their height above the ground. The fourth group consists of vertically developed clouds, while the final group consists of a collection of miscellaneous cloud types.

Photograph by: Knupp
High-Level Clouds
High-level clouds form above 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) and since the temperatures are so cold at such high elevations, these clouds are primarily composed of ice crystals. High-level clouds are typically thin and white in appearance, but can appear in a magnificent array of colors when the sun is low on the horizon.

Photograph by: Holle
Mid-Level Clouds
The bases of mid-level clouds typically appear between 6,500 to 20,000 feet (2,000 to 6,000 meters). Because of their lower altitudes, they are composed primarily of water droplets, however, they can also be composed of ice crystals when temperatures are cold enough.

Low-level Clouds
Low clouds are of mostly composed of water droplets since their bases generally lie below 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). However, when temperatures are cold enough, these clouds may also contain ice particles and snow.

Photograph by: Holle
Vertically Developed Clouds
Probably the most familiar of the classified clouds is the cumulus cloud. Generated most commonly through either thermal convection or frontal lifting, these clouds can grow to heights in excess of 39,000 feet (12,000 meters), releasing incredible amounts of energy through the condensation of water vapor within the cloud itself.

Photograph by: Holle