How to distinguish clouds

How to distinguish clouds

When J. M. W. Turner added the red daub of paint, representing a buoy, to his watery ‘Helvoetsluys’ seascape as it hung next to the bold river Thames oil painting of his rival John Constable, he stole the show at the 1832 Summer Exhibition. Yet, while it was that speck of red oil that caused such controversy, it was Turner’s depiction of cloud formations – something that captured his interest throughout his career – that won admiration.

For who hasn’t marvelled at the sky as they gaze out to sea, the wide horizon a perfect vista to view the ever-changing cloud patterns and anticipate what weather they might bring. Clouds are classified in three groups: cumulus (large and lumpy shapes), stratus (layers that blanket the sky) and cirrus (wispy clouds found at high altitudes). But how to identify what you’re looking at? Here are the ten most common cloud formations to spot.


  1. Cumulus: puffy, bright white with flat bottoms in a blue sky, much like a child might draw.

  2. Stratus: hang low in the sky and look flat and featureless; often seen on overcast days.

  3. Stratocumulus: puffy, white and grey clouds with smaller patches of blue sky between them – the epitome of a cloudy day.

  4. Altocumulus: nicknamed ‘sheep backs’, they look like mounds of sheep’s wool, sit higher in the sky than cumulus, and are larger than stratocumulus.

  5. Nimbostratus: a dark grey layer of cloud that can blot out the sun – these are classic rain clouds.

  6. Altostratus: a thin layer of grey or blue-grey cloud that dims the sun and stops the sunlight casting shadows.

  7. Cirrus: wispy strands of cloud streaked across the sky at a higher altitude. Sailors regard them as a warning of a coming storm.

  8. Cirrocumulus: short-lived patches of high cloud that appear spread across the sky in bumpy rows.

  9. Cirrostratus: a barely-there veil of cloud covering the entire sky that produces a halo effect around the sun or moon.

  10. Cumulonimbus: dense thunderstorm clouds that rise up from cumulus shapes and span the low, middle and high altitudes, billowing upwards with a darker, flat bottom.

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