Keep A Close Eye On The Sky

I have lived underneath the sky for nearly 32 years; at least, most of the time. If I was to add up the amount of days I have spent in the sky, above the clouds, it probably wouldn’t come to much more than a week total.

But excepting those minutes and hours spent in a tin can in the air, travelling from place to place, I have spent 32 years beneath the sky. And yet I only started to really look up at it (for any other reason than to say ‘oh, it’s going to rain’) 29 years in. Before that, I somehow hadn’t really noticed what was going on up there.

A random dream about cloud names, the first time I had recalled them since GCSE Geography, made me join the Cloud Appreciation Society. It’s a real thing, and it gave me a certificate and membership number so I could start looking at the sky. Not that you need a membership number to look at the sky.

That’s the beauty of it. Looking up at the sky is free, and open to everybody, and you can do it from anywhere in the world.

Cloud of the month

The Cloud Appreciation Society website has a Cloud of the Month feature, which sounds like a joke but isn’t, a picture of a cloud formation taken somewhere in the world accompanied by the story of how it was formed.

I loved looking at them and getting transported to India or Thailand or Mexico without ever leaving my sofa. Eventually I had to get out and see them for myself.

The sky is everywhere, and you can go anywhere to see it, but clouds look different on different continents thanks to what lies underneath them; be it mountains or ocean or expanses of land that stretch to the horizon. That’s not even considering the impact of the weather, or the season.

Over the next year and a half I saw giant, black thunder clouds over the deserts and mountains of New Mexico and hundreds and hundreds of gentle, cotton wool ball clouds hanging in a bright blue sky in Arizona. I saw the Northern Lights over Iceland, a phenomenon so fleeting and rare that the hotels will offer to give you a wakeup call during the night if they appear. I followed tropical storm clouds across Bermuda; angry ones that spat lightning forks every few seconds, finally chasing me back indoors.  

And just once, and just for a few minutes, in the skies above Normandy, Northern France,  I saw the rare and wonderful Asperitas cloud formation, which looks like a choppy sea, and which has only just been officially recognised as a cloud form by the World Meteorological Organization.

Peaceful skies

I feel peaceful when looking at the clouds, or excited when I spot a cloud formation I’ve not seen before. There are several that I still dream of seeing with my own eyes.

A giant, foreboding looking ‘Morning Glory’ roll cloud, for example, like the one spotted over parts of Northern Australia at roughly the same time every spring season there, or a rapidly rotating Tuba, which can turn into a mighty Tornado if it stretches downwards from the clouds above, and touches the ground.

Tornado season in the USA happens in May and June and during that time, the great Plains states in the centre of the country can see hundreds of tornados that, whilst utterly spectacular, can do a lot of damage.

Last year I found myself in Kansas, sitting in a biker bar, talking to the bartender. It was the wrong time of year for Tornados but I was keen to learn all I could. ‘You can tell when there’s going to be a tornado from the minute you wake up,’ she told me. ‘The air feels different, and the colour of the sky changes. It looks almost green. That’s how you know you’re going to get one that day’. 

There are Professional Storm Chasers who hare after the clouds in cars and trucks as they develop into giant thunderstorms, and many of them take stunning photographs. The chasers can act as early warning systems, letting the nearby towns know when a tornado is heading for them – giving them precious extra minutes to get to safety. One day I want to chase a storm with camera in hand. And not die.

The sky is full of fantastical things to see all the time, everywhere in the world, and the most fantastic thing about it is that the sky is different every time you look up. Gazing skyward is like looking at an ever changing work of art.

So next time you’re in need of something to do, whether at home or abroad, find a hill and sit on it and spot some clouds. It’s amazing up there.   


Cloud Fact File For Beginners

Here are 3 common clouds that you might spot in the wild, right above where you are right now!

Cumulus

These are the puffy, white clouds you see hanging low in the sky on sunny days. They are generally fluffy in appearance and they have flat bases. They can morph into other, more threatening types of cloud, such as cumulonimbus, but as they are, they are generally harmless and rarely produce precipitation.

Cirrus 

These clouds are typically thin and wispy and occur very high up, typically at above 20,000 feet and are made up of ice crystals that formed when water droplets cooled. The name ‘cirrus’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘lock of hair’ and they can look like strands, or feathers hanging in the sky. On Earth, they appear white or light grey in colour, and they’ve been known to form over other planets too. They don’t produce rain, but can be a precursor to a change in the weather.

Cumulonimbus

This is the mother of all clouds – the magnificent storm cloud. It starts as a cumulus cloud and bubbles up higher and higher until it reaches so high up into the troposphere that it starts to crystallise into ice. Being underneath a cumulonimbus can be an unpleasant experience, especially when it’s spewing rain, lightning or hail, but viewing it from a distance can be majestic.

And 2 not-so-common cloud formations to look out for:

Asperitas

This is a brand new cloud classification, and will be included in the updated version of the International Cloud Atlas, due out later this year or early in 2016. The name comes from the Latin for ‘rough’ and it looks just like that – a rough or choppy ocean. Gazing up at it is a little like spotting the end of the world – it looks wild and weird, and if you are lucky enough to see it, you’ll feel like you are witnessing chaos.

Lenticular clouds

These can form either low down or higher up in the troposphere and have sometimes been offered up as explanations for UFO sightings, such is their alien spaceship-like appearance. They form when the wind hits the clouds up in a certain way, from a certain direction, and this makes them look almost whipped, like a 99 ice cream. If you see one of these, it’s like looking at the skies above another world.

So next time you're outside, lift your eyes skyward and see what's going on above you! 


Christina Owen blogs at Rainbow Roadtrip.