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Types of Clouds Based on Altitude

Abhijit Naik Oct 24, 2018
A cloud is nothing but a visible mass of droplets or frozen crystals suspended in the atmosphere above the Earth's surface. In this ScienceStruck post, we will discuss the different types of clouds that we see in the sky and their meaning.
We see clouds thousands of times in our day-to-day life. Some people are fascinated by their color, while others are amazed by their shape and size. Some people can't stop wondering why clouds are white, while others wonder how it would feel to touch them.
Most of us have had a fascination for clouds at some or the other point of time in life, and yet, we hardly know much about them.

Clouds Types Explained

So, clouds are visible masses of droplets or frozen crystals suspended in the atmosphere. It's a known fact that there are various kinds of clouds. For kids to understand this topic in its entirety, that they take an active interest in clouds and cloud formations at a young age.
There are several different types of clouds categorized on the basis of the altitude at which they are found, their shape, size, structure, etc.

High-level Clouds

Clouds which appear approximately 20,000 ft above the surface of the Earth are referred to as high-level clouds. Owing to the freezing temperature at this height, these clouds mostly consist of ice crystals. Generally, these thin clouds are white in color. High-level clouds are further divided into two groups: (i) cirrus clouds and (ii) cirrostratus clouds.

Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are mostly found at height of around 20,000 ft or more from the Earth's surface. They are composed of ice crystals which originate due to the freezing temperature at this elevation.
Most often observed in fair weather, they are seen pointing towards the direction where wind is flowing.

Cirrostratus Clouds

Cirrostratus clouds are high-level clouds characterized by their sheet like appearance. Even they are composed of ice crystals. These types of clouds are formed when large-scale convergence lifts a broad layer of air to great elevations.
Although they do cover the entire sky, their semi-transparent nature helps the Sun (and the Moon) to peek through them with immense ease.

Mid-level Clouds

These clouds appear at a height between 6,500 to 20,000 ft above the surface of the Earth. Due to their low altitude, they most often form of water droplets, but at times― those appearing at the higher end of demarcated altitude―are composed of ice crystals like high-level clouds.
At about an average of 15,000 ft above the Earth's surface lie the cumulus clouds. These clouds can be distinguished by their tendency to be in a group and their color, which is usually light gray. Mid-level clouds are further categorized into two groups: (i) altocumulus clouds and (ii) altostratus clouds.

Altocumulus Clouds

Altocumulus clouds are mostly characterized by a shaded portion which makes them distinguishable from other cloud types. Generally, they sport an appearance of parallel bands or rounded masses.
The gradual lifting of air on the wake of cold fronts forms a convection in an unstable layer aloft, which eventually leads to the formation of altocumulus clouds.

Altostratus Clouds

Altostratus clouds are normally characterized by a uniform gray sheet that is darker than cirrostrtus, but lighter than nimbostratus clouds. They most often appear at an elevation between 8,000 to 20,000 ft.
Though they cover the sky, sunlight passes through due to their semi-transparent nature. They are made up of ice crystals, produce light precipitation.

Low-level Clouds

Clouds which appear below an altitude of 6,500 ft are known as low-level clouds. These clouds are usually made of water droplets. However, when the temperature is very low, they can contain ice particles or snow. Low-level clouds are further divided into two groups: (i) stratocumulus clouds and (ii) nimbostratus clouds.

Nimbostratus Clouds

Nimbostratus clouds are dark low-level clouds which can produce light to moderate precipitation. Their base lies at an altitude of around 2,000 ft, as a result of which they are mainly composed of water particles.
However, low temperature can lead to the formation of ice particles or snow in them, which may result in precipitation in the form of snowfall in that particular area.

Stratocumulus Clouds

Stratocumulus clouds are low-level clouds appearing at an altitude of as low as 2,000 ft. These clouds, which appear in form of rounded masses, normally range from light gray to dark gray in color.
These clouds have the capacity to produce precipitation ranging from weak to light or moderate in intensity.
Other types of clouds include fair weather cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds; contrails formed due to the injection of water vapor into the atmosphere by exhaust fumes from jet engines; and orographic clouds, formed by the forced lifting of air on the various topographic structures.

Cloud Formations

Clouds are formed when air containing water vapor is cooled beyond the dew point and the moisture in the air condenses into droplets settle on microscopic particles―known as condensation nuclei―suspended in the atmosphere.
Other reasons for the formation of clouds include reduction of pressure upwards and mixing of warm and cold air currents.
Even cloud formation plays an interesting role in weather forecasting. The study of clouds and weather predictions go hand in hand. For instance, the presence of altocumulus clouds on a warm and humid summer morning is most likely a sign of thunderstorms later in the day.