Shifting Clouds: Retreating Toward the Poles

November 19, 2018

It seems that the clouds have started to shift towards the poles, causing some interesting changes in the tropics.

Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia

Recent satellite data shows that clouds have been retreating toward the poles, and that they’re also growing higher. Find out what these changes mean for your cloud watching afternoons!

If you are a weather addict like me, one of life’s simple pleasures is cloud watching. (This one looks like a bunny. This one looks like a pony. That one looks like a cumulonimbus—get out the umbrellas!) Scientists have also been watching them, with decades of records from satellites.

Clouds Shifting Toward the Poles

Guess what! They’ve discovered that the clouds are shifty. Overall they have been retreating toward the poles. A new paper published in Nature examines weather satellite data between 1983 and 2009. It shows that the cloud cover in the middle latitudes (the U.S., Europe, and most of Asia) is heading away from the equators. Similarly, the middle latitude storm tracks that bring rainfall have been withdrawing north and south as well. If you enjoy clear, sunny skies and not mowing the lawn very often, this is great news. If you fret that the desert is coming to get you, it’s time to move along.


Photo Credit: NASA. Global cloud cover and storm tracks have retreated toward the poles since the 1980s.

Higher Clouds Forming

This isn’t the only change that has been happening. The satellites are also showing that cloud tops are growing higher. In other words, the clouds are not only running away, they are piling up on each other in the retreat.


Photo Credit: NASA. Cloud tops have been growing higher.

Expansion of the Tropics

This finding only confirms other scientific findings that weather patterns have shifted over the last thirty-five years. In particular, the tropics have grown. Scientists have shown since 2007 that the three tropical weather zones—the jungles, savannas/monsoon lands, and deserts—have expanded by between 2° and 4.8° latitude, roughly 172 miles toward the poles. This is part of Earth’s overall warming pattern over the past century.


Photo Credit: Dale Preston/Wikimedia. The tropics are expanding.

As the tropical weather expands, the sub-tropical weather shifts as well. Here in the US, that means the middle latitude clouds have been migrating north like a flock of birds.

Of course, it’s all very slow, taking decades. So get your cloud watching in while you can—that one over there looks like a duckbill platypus. 

Learn how to identify cloud types and some great tips for cloud watching.

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.