Different Shapes of Clouds

Above: Different Shapes of Clouds

Different Shapes of Clouds

Clouds can bring to mind a lot of things. Sometimes they look like soft puffs of cotton scattered across the sky. Other times, they bring to mind a thick and soft blanket that provides comfort in the cold. Or they can even look like feathers, just floating around as they gently ride the soft breeze. Truly, clouds can take all sorts of shapes and forms. Based on the different shapes of clouds, they have been classified into ten different genera, each with different species and subdivisions. Just by looking at the shapes of clouds, meteorologists can easily identify them.

Names Based on Shape

The current Linnaean system of classification was developed from the original cloud nomenclature that Luke Howard created in 1802.  When Luke Howard first came up with the names, he did so by observing that there are basically three different shapes of clouds.  Based on what the clouds were shaped like, he came up with the Latin names that we use today.

He first noticed that clouds could take the shape of thin, delicate strands of hair.  These types of clouds have a light and feathery feel to them, and they look like a mare’s tail.  They also often take the shape of curly hair, which is why Luke Howard named these clouds “cirrus,” which in Latin means, “curl.”

Unlike the light feathery wisps of cirrus clouds, he noticed that some clouds look like cotton balls instead.  These puffy-looking clouds can resemble many things – from marshmallows to stuffed animals.  These clouds are usually heaped together in groups, and this is why he named them “cumulus,” which is the Latin word for “heap.”

Cirrus and cumulus shapes are different and exciting, gloriously dotting the sky and providing contrast to it.  There are times, however, when clouds take the shape of a blanket or a sheet, covering huge portions of the sky.  Sometimes, if they’re thick enough they even cover the sky entirely.  Luke Howard named this type “stratus,” which means “stretched” or “spread out” in Latin.

From Three to Ten

Luke Howard’s cloud nomenclature was simply based on the different shapes of clouds.  His naming system was accepted widely across groups – first because it was in Latin (the preferred language during his time); and second, because the names, which were simply derived from the shapes of the clouds, are very easy to remember.  It became so popular that the International Meteorological Commission even recognized it formally as the naming standard to be used all over the world.

Meteorologists soon realized, however, that the shapes of clouds vary from each other so greatly, and they couldn’t just stick to three categories.  They still adhered to the three original types of clouds, but they started combining the names and adding new ones to cater to the many different shapes they observed.  They also incorporated other Latin names to the original three, such as nimbus for storm or rain clouds because in Latin, “nimbus” means, “rain.”  They also classified these clouds according to their relative height in the atmosphere.  In the end they came up with four low clouds, three high clouds, and three middle-level clouds.  “Alto,” which means “middle” in Latin, was added to the names of the clouds in the middle-level category.

The Ten Basic Shapes

At present, there are ten different shapes of clouds.  The four lower clouds are called cumulus, cumulonimbus, stratus, and stratocumulus.  The three middle clouds are called altocumulus, altostratus, and nimbostratus.  The three high clouds are called cirrus, cirrocumulus, and cirrostratus.  Each one of these ten distinct cloud types has a different shape:

  • Cumulus – These are the fair-weather clouds that look like puffy cotton balls.


  • Cumulonimbus – Also known as the “storm cloud,” these are thick and low cloud towers in the sky and are seen as a sure signal that a storm is coming.


  • Stratus – Shaped like a sheet covering the sky, this is a very low-level cloud.


  • Stratocumulus – Combining the characteristics of the cumulus and stratus clouds, they look like puffy cotton balls that are joined together in a low, semi-continuous layer.


  • Altocumulus – A litter higher in the sky compared to the normal cumulus, these clouds usually look like many rolls of bread.


  • Altostratus – Like the stratus cloud, it looks like a blanket or a sheet, but with a higher elevation from 6,500 to 23,000 feet.


  • Nimbostratus – Also known as the “rainy day cloud,” it looks like a thick dripping blanket.


  • Cirrus – Delicate streaks that are very high up in the sky.


  • Cirrocumulus – Streaks of high clouds that are shaped like ripples.


  • Cirrostratus – A very thin, almost opaque sheet of cloud that’s very high up in the sky.

Shape Peculiarities

The ten shapes that meteorologists have come up with are each subdivided into different species, which then take the form of different varieties.  This Linnaean system of classification is an exhaustive one, and allows meteorologists to properly identify cloud shapes.

Occasionally, however, when people look up at the clouds, peculiar shapes come to mind.  A cumulus cloud can look like a poodle.  An altocumulus cloud can take the shape of a fish.  Cirrus clouds can be shaped like a dragonfly. 

People associate clouds with all kinds of peculiar shapes – shapes that don’t appear on a regular basis.  These shapes are, of course, simply coincidental, and perception actually plays a big role in the identification of these peculiar shapes.  When one person sees a fish, another can see a turtle.  The very active imaginations of people come into play here.

The Importance of Cloud Shapes

It is clear that clouds take all kinds of shapes and formations.  Meteorologists have even come up with a complete nomenclature to describe all of these shapes.  But what makes clouds’ shapes so important?  Why do meteorologists spend a lot of time studying cloud shapes?  Cloud shapes are important because they’re a great indication for the coming weather, especially precipitation.  For many years, the different shapes of clouds have helped make weather forecasting a whole lot easier.

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