Names of Clouds Atlas

Above: Names of Clouds Atlas

Names of Clouds Atlas

People see numerous clouds almost every single day, just by looking at the sky. The appearance of clouds is so normal and expected, almost to the point of being taken for granted. People know that clouds take a variety of shapes and forms, and that they come with all sorts of names. What some people don't realize is that clouds are so much more than just white fluffy wisps dotting the cerulean blue sky.

Formed by the condensation of water vapor on the Earth’s atmosphere, clouds are essential to the continuity of life.   Without clouds there is no rain, and the water cycle wouldn’t be possible.  In the early days, clouds were indispensable to weather forecasting.  They were so important that for many years, meteorologists have been studying them, giving them names, and even classifying them into various genera and species.  To complete the study and understanding of clouds, meteorologists needed pictures to go along with the names – and this is how the names of clouds atlas was born.  But before meteorologists got to that point, the first thing they had to think of was how to name the clouds exactly.

Cloud Naming: A History

Clouds remained nameless until a few experts attempted to name them.  The first was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist.  He proposed a few descriptive names to help label the clouds, but because the names were in French, they weren’t universally accepted.  At that time, Latin was the language that was widely used in most of Europe and in the scientific world. 

In December of 1802, a British chemist named Luke Howard proposed a new way of naming clouds – this time, in Latin.  Luke Howard was a pharmacist by profession, but his real passion was Meteorology.  In his essay entitled, “On the Modification of Clouds,” which he presented to the Askesian Society, he came up with the naming system that became the basis of the names that meteorologists use today.  Other scientists tried to come up with different naming systems, but the International Meteorological Commission formally recognized Howard’s system as the international naming standard.

The Basis for the Names

In Luke Howard’s original naming system, he only identified three principal names: Stratus, Cumulus, and Cirrus.  He added Nimbus much later.  By tracing the meanings of the Latin names Howard chose, it is clear that they were chosen because they were very descriptive of the clouds he was trying to name:

  • In Latin, “Stratus” means “spread out” or “stretch” – Used to describe the flat, horizontal sheets of clouds stretched out in the sky.


  • In Latin, “Cumulus” means “heap” – Used to describe clouds that are dense and puffy.


  • In Latin, “Cirrus” means “curl”– Used to describe clouds that are spread out thinly, looking like tiny tufts or patches of hair.


  • In Latin, “Nimbus” means “rain” – Used to describe clouds that bring precipitation.


Names Added to Cloud Nomenclature

Over the years, scientists have added other categories to the original naming system that Luke Howard created:

  • “Stratocumulus” was added by Ludwig Kaemtz, a German meteorologist.  It was used to describe clouds that exhibited both stratiform and cumuliform characteristics.


  • “Altocumulus” and “Altostratus” were added by Emilien Renou, a French meteorologist.  In Latin, “Alto” means “middle” – used to describe clouds that are in middle height range.  This is a significant addition because before this, clouds were only categorized as either upper-range or lower-range in height.  By adding “Alto” to the names, Renou was describing cumuliform and stratiform clouds that are in the middle height range.


  • “Cumulonimbus” was added by Philip Weilbach, an amateur meteorologist.  This is a vertical type of cloud that can produce thunder, and is a combination of the Cumulus and Nimbus forms.  This addition led to the creation of ten further genera.


Aside from these noteworthy additions, scientists have added even more subdivisions in various cloud genera through the years, resulting to the cloud classification that is being used today.

Hildebrandsson’s Cloud Atlas

Even with the names of clouds firmly established, people needed more than names to fully understand clouds.  To make sure that these names don’t get mixed up with one another, and to aid the meteorological studies that were being conducted, they turned to the names of clouds atlas.  A cloud atlas contains pictures of the clouds to go with the names.

In 1890, the Swedish meteorologist Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson (with Wladimir Köppen and Georg von Neumayer) came out with the ”Cloud Atlas,” the first names of clouds atlas to be published.  It contained twelve photographs and ten oil paintings to represent and illustrate the different cloud forms that by this time had already been established through cloud nomenclature.

International Cloud Atlas

The International Meteorological Conference in 1896 produced the “International Cloud Atlas,” which contained photographs of clouds taken using various techniques.  These technological advances were needed to ensure that there was a contrast between the clouds and the sky, and that the colors of the photographs were as accurate as possible.  However, color photography was still very new during this time, so it was still quite expensive to produce.  For this reason, some of the illustrations in the first version of the International Cloud Atlas were produced using paintings. 

Many other editions followed the first names of clouds atlas that was published internationally.  More than being a book that contains pictures of clouds, the cloud atlas is a very important tool in the study and understanding of clouds.  From the time Luke Howard came out with the names of clouds, cloud nomenclature has evolved into a complicated list of genera, species, and subdivisions. 

With all of these names, meteorologists need a standardized guide showing them exactly what kinds of clouds these names were referring to.  The names of clouds atlas has been published repeatedly since its first inception, and it has helped many meteorologists through the years.  Until today, meteorologists from all over the world use this cloud atlas in order to accurately and consistently identify the names of the various cloud formations.  

Back to Top