Cloud Watching 101

April 17, 2020

Hello, my name is Evelyn. I am a weather addict.

Maybe some of you readers are sane, sober people reading the almanac for tips on growing your gardens. But if you are hooked on weather, particularly if you love clouds, l have the good stuff here.

One of the enjoyable pastimes of weather addiction is cloud watching. I live in New Mexico, where the sky is such a deep blue that native tradition believed turquoise was small pieces of fallen sky. Part of the joy of being outside is just to gaze into the endless blue and watch the clouds form, shift and dissolve.

Scientists explain that warm air collides with cooler air, causing the moisture in the air to condense from gas to droplets or frozen particles. Science aside, clouds form weird and wonderful shapes and images.

Here are three relatively rare clouds types I have seen here in New Mexico. Have you seen them?

Jellyfish clouds or virga

Image courtesy of NOAA

These clouds are common in the desert, but rare elsewhere. Those jellyfish tendrils are rain that can’t reach the ground. They occur when the ground heats the air so it evaporates the falling rain.

Mammatus clouds

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Anyone who has milked a cow knows how these clouds got their name. They are sagging pouches that form on the base of larger clouds, like the anvil clouds of thunderstorms (where they sometimes indicate a potential tornado.) There are many theories why these puffs of moisture form under the clouds but so far there are no real answers. While an individual lobe usually lasts only 10 minutes, the boiling cluster can linger for hours. It’s an incredible sight.

Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds

Image courtesy of Windows to the Universe, Benjamin Foster/UCAR

Named for Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, these weird clouds appear when two layers of air are traveling at different speeds and the faster top layer ripples the moisture of the lower air mass. They are rare and as a sign of unstable air, seldom last longer than 10 to 15 minutes. In the West, they sometimes appear when cool air races up one side of a mountain and glides over the air on the other side.

Have you seen these beauties? Better yet, do you have pictures of any weird or wonderful clouds to share?

Weather addicts of the world, UNITE!

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.