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Understanding and Interpreting Clouds


Understanding and Interpreting Clouds

Understanding and Interpreting Clouds

As children, many of us found ourselves regularly amazed and captivated by the clouds’ ever-changing shapes. I have had a lifelong fascination with clouds, and I could not wait to fly through them when I first began flying. This allure only grew when I opened an airplane window to reach out and touch them. Like most pilots, my instrument rating enabled me to skim the top of a cloud layer, further fueling my fascination. My pilot training has shown me that clouds are more than just mystical expanses; they are beacons that provide crucial information about moisture, stability, and air motion.

We can use clouds to visualize weather conditions and anticipate potential hazards. Clouds are categorized into four families according to their altitudes, shapes, and behaviors:

1. Cirrus (high clouds)

2. Alto (middle clouds)

3. Stratus (low clouds)

4.Cumulus (clouds with vertical development)

To further classify cloud types, suffixes and prefixes are used to identify different types of clouds. The prefix “nimbo” or the suffix “nimbus” is often added to a cloud type to classify it as a raincloud. So, a low cloud that is producing rain is a nimbostratus. The suffix “fractus” is used to describe fragmented clouds. Thus, a cumulus cloud broken into fragments would be called a cumulus fractus.


The cirrus (high cloud) family appears between 16,000′ and 43,000′ and includes cirrus, cirrocumulus, and cirrostratus clouds. These clouds are made up almost completely of ice crystals and do not typically pose a threat of turbulence or structural aircraft icing. Cirrus: thin, wispy, feather-like clouds in narrow bands or patches. They contain no significant icing or turbulence.

Cirrocumulus clouds: thin and may resemble patches of cotton or small white flakes. These clouds may cause some turbulence and icing. Cirrus clouds are those high, wispy clouds you see on a clear, cool day.

Cirrostratus clouds: thin, white clouds that may resemble a sheet or layer. These clouds pose no threat to turbulence and little icing, but they may restrict visibility. They can make the use of instruments necessary.


The alto (middle cloud) family appears between 7,000′ and 23,000′ and includes altostratus, altocumulus, and nimbostratus clouds. These clouds are made of supercooled water droplets, ice crystals, or liquid water. They appear flat and are normally associated with an approaching warm front. They may contain turbulence and potential severe icing.

Altostratus clouds: a bluish veil or layer of clouds in which the sun may be faintly visible. There is little or no turbulence, with moderate amounts of ice associated with these clouds.

Altocumulus clouds: gray or white-colored layers or patches of solid cloud that may have a roll-like appearance. These clouds may cause some turbulence and small amounts of icing.

Nimbostratus clouds: gray, massive clouds that are diffused by continued snow, rain, or ice pellets. These clouds cause very little turbulence but can be a serious threat to icing if temperatures are near or below freezing.


The stratus (low cloud) family appears from the surface to 7,000′ and includes stratus, stratocumulus, and fair weather cumulus clouds. These clouds are made almost entirely of water but sometimes contain super-cooled water. Low clouds can contain snow and ice particles at subfreezing temperatures. These clouds are normally associated with rain.

Stratus clouds: gray, sheet-like clouds that can restrict or limit visibility. They pose little to no threat of turbulence but can create dangerous icing conditions when temperatures are near or below freezing.

Stratocumulus clouds: layered clouds that appear to be clumped into masses or rolls. The clouds typically lack enough moisture to cause rain but can cause some turbulence and potential icing at subfreezing temperatures.

Fair-weather cumulus clouds: puffy, white clouds that do not cause prescription. They may signal a shallow layer of instability and turbulence, but no significant icing.


The cumulus (clouds with vertical development) family is made up of towering cumulus and cumulonimbus and appear from 1,000’ or less to above 10,000’. Typically, these clouds contain supercooled water above the freezing level. These clouds tend to be unstable and cause a lot of turbulence.

Towering cumulus clouds: puffy clouds that resemble “cauliflower tops”. They signify a deep layer of unstable air, very strong turbulence, and some icing above the freezing level. Showers can sometimes fall from these clouds.

Cumulonimbus clouds: large, multi-level clouds that are a telltale sign of instability. These are thunderstorm clouds that should be avoided at all times.

Other unique types of clouds that pilots must recognize are lenticular clouds, rotor clouds, and mammatus clouds.

Lenticular clouds: lens-shaped clouds that develop when strong winds travel up mountains. Avoid flying close to these clouds because they indicate heavy turbulence and strong winds along mountain ranges.

Rotor clouds: turbulent, ragged-looking clouds that form under the crests of mountain waves at low altitudes. Avoid these clouds at all times, as they are associated with violent turbulence.

Mammatus clouds: dark gray, with wavy “pouches” or “bulges.” They are usually associated with severe weather like thunderstorms, lightning, hail, and tornadoes. Avoid flying in these clouds when possible.

Pilots must understand the various types of clouds, as they provide invaluable insights into atmospheric conditions, aiding in safe navigation and decision-making during flight. Pilots can anticipate weather changes, turbulence, icing conditions, and other types of potential hazards by recognizing cloud formations and types, This ensures the safety of both the aircraft and its passengers.