Feb 14, 2012

The Romance of Cloudspotting

Clouds are Nature's poetry spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag….Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. 
—Gavin Pretor-Pinney,
The Cloudspotter’s Guide 

Cumulus clouds hang low over the Blue Ridge Mountains
on a fall day in 
Rappahannock County, Virginia
Mare’s tail, mammatus, thundercloud—evocative names for clouds, actors playing out a drama over our heads we often ignore while going about our lives down here on earth.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cloud is “a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet…or moon.” Clouds can inspire a range of emotions, from peace, awe, excitement, and pleasure to fear and sadness. A deep blue sky is beautiful, but the contrast of a fluffy white cloud moving across it makes it exponentially more so.

In a moment of leisure, we might ponder whether a cloud looks like a bunny or George Washington. When a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard is heading our way, we peruse the sky more anxiously, wondering what hardship its clouds may portend.

Enormously attracted to the endless variety and beauty of clouds, I spent many a summer afternoon outside as a kid lying on my back to watch the show above, trying to determine who the lead characters were and the story they were trying to tell. As a teen, I once emerged from an arroyo on a horseback ride with an uncle in Utah to see narrow white funnel clouds eerily reaching down from a bright blue sky. It took a minute to realize they were tornadoes, which did millions of dollars of damage to Salt Lake City. Camping in Kansas as an adult, I took the clue from an ominous welling up of black clouds, throwing my gear into my car and leaving a campground just ahead of a tornado. 

While living on the Northern Plains, I thrilled to the enormous canvas of sky on which clouds played out their lives, often serving as a dark backdrop for complete rainbows formed by light gloriously refracted by water molecules. In the Pacific Northwest, I lived under the pall of dark, wet, brooding skies that contributed to the lush green landscape but also to the high incidence of depression in local residents.

I’m hardly alone in my love of clouds. Thinking they were not adequately recognized for their important role in the water cycle on which all life depends, British author Gavin Pretor-Pinney formed The Cloud Appreciation Society. The society’s website includes a magnificent photo gallery of clouds.

Although a proud, badge-carrying member of the society, I’m still struggling with the nuances of the taxonomic system for classifying clouds, which is modeled on the one for living things, with species grouped into genera. In 2006, Pretor-Pinney wrote The Cloudspotter’s Guide as “a celebration of the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloudspotting.” I’ve found the book not only really useful in sorting out clouds but also an enjoyable, quirky read.

To me, cumulus is the loveliest and most peaceful genus. These are the fluffy clouds we most associate with warm days. However, they can grow into more ominous cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds, that can release pounding downpours accompanied by lightning and thunder. As the rain passes, the sky breaks into stratocumulus clouds, which “gather into snow-covered mountains and melt into winding rivers of blue,” in the words of Pretor-Pinney. Altocumulus clouds appear clumped in layers that form between the ground and the top of the troposphere.

Stratus is the flat gray sheet of cloud that may produce light rain. Nimbostratus, darker than stratus but slower moving than cumulonimbus, releases steady rain over many hours.

Wispy cirrus clouds fly high over the Rappahannock
Farmer’s Co-op (now CFC Farm & Home) on a winter day
Cirrus clouds are the highest. Made of ice crystals, they are wispy, feathery creatures we see most often on winter days. Cirrocumulus, another high-flying cloud that typically appears en masse, is so tiny that it can be hard to separate out individuals. These clouds sometimes look like “no more than ripples in a high, smooth layer,” as Pretor-Pinney puts it.   
Each genera is further organized into several species and varieties. Cirrus uncinus (meaning "curly hooks" in Latin) is one of my favorites species. This  comma-shaped cirrus cloud has wisps flying out below a thicker top and is commonly known as “mare’s tail.”

If you’re a serious cloudspotter, you can attempt to sort out clouds’ taxonomy—or you can just enjoy them. And you needn’t leave the house to do either.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, about connecting children with nature, also wrote an article on the same theme, “Cloudspotting, Wildcrafting, and Wildwatching,” for the Barnes & Noble website. In the article, he tells of meeting a boy who loved nature but suffered from a condition that “caused him to be overwhelmed when he went outside” and therefore spent most of his life in his room.

Louv later stumbled onto The Cloudspotter’s Guide in an airport shop and sent it to the boy, who was a friend of his son. “He might not be able to step outside the front door comfortably,” Louv wrote, “but he and his family could still exercise his curiosity about nature—they could still see the sky from his bedroom window.” 

Pretor-Pinney, in his manifesto for The Cloud Appreciation Society, encourages us to “Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.”

[First published in January 2012 as a "Wild Ideas" column in subscribing Virginia newspapers.]

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