Names of Clouds Nephology

Above: Names of Clouds Nephology

Names of Clouds Nephology

Curious people would want to know how clouds are named. Who named these clouds and why are they named as such? Names of clouds Nephology is essential so clouds may be properly identified. Of course, ordinary people can identify clouds like cumulus, stratus or cirrus but there is more to cloud naming. There are many types of cloud and being able to distinguish them from each other helps in determining the weather.

What is Nephology or Cloud Physics?

This is a branch of meteorology that is focused on the study of clouds and cloud formations. The term came from the word ‘nephos’ which is the Greek word for clouds. The term ‘Nephology’ came to be used at the last part of the nineteenth century and became obsolete in the middle of the twentieth century. Luke Howard, who is recognized for classifying clouds in 1802, was a major researcher in this field. Cloud Physics is currently the more common term and it is deemed an important branch of meteorology.

Clouds are important in maintaining the Earth’s radiation balance and for precipitation. Rains are very essential especially in food production, and the Earth’s surface is cooled by clouds when they reflect sunlight by absorbing heat from the surface.

Importance of Cloud Classification

Classifying clouds is important because they aid in naming them. Clouds are often classified in terms of altitude and appearance.

Classification based on altitude:

  • High-level clouds reach a level above 20,000 feet or 6,000 meters. Clouds at this level have the prefix cirro.


  • Mid-level clouds are at a level between 6,500 feet to 20,000 feet. The prefix alto is added to a cloud’s name in this level.


  • Low-level clouds generally are at a level below 6,500 feet.


Classification based on appearance:

  • Stratus clouds are also known as layer clouds. They are wide clouds and cover most of the sky.


  • Cumulus mean ‘heaps’ in Latin and Cumulus clouds usually signal fair weather.


  • Cirrus clouds are curly clouds. The term cirrus means ‘curly hair’ in Latin. They are often high-level clouds.


  • Nimbus clouds are rain-bearing. They are filled with water droplets at low levels.

How are Clouds Named?

Clouds get their name with reference to their appearance and altitude. The names of clouds usually have two parts. The first has to do with height and the second has to do with appearance. A cloud in the highest level has a prefix of cirro. For high-level clouds, an example is the cirrostratus cloud. This cloud is a high-level cloud that is made up of ice crystals. The cloud in the second level has a prefix of alto, and an altocumulus cloud is an example. When this cloud appears in the morning it usually signals thunderstorms later in the day. Low-level clouds do not need prefixes. They can either be nimbostratus or stratocumulus. Names of clouds Nephology is structured in a way that it is easily understood, and their names alone are able to describe the specific type of clouds found in the sky.

Who Names the Clouds?

It is the meteorologists that assign names to the clouds. They base it on the clouds’ appearance and altitude. Luke Howard is attributed with naming the clouds in early 1800’s and it was in December of 1803 when he first came up with three cloud classifications. He used Latin to name the clouds, namely cumulus, stratus and cirrus. He just added nimbus to refer to clouds that bring precipitation. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck also proposed to name the clouds but he used unusual French names that even the French nation was not impressed with his system. The International Meteorological Commission was the body that adopted Howard’s classification system in 1929.  

Non-specific Clouds Classifications

There are also other types of clouds without specific classifications. These names of clouds Nephology cannot be properly categorized by appearance or altitude. Still, they are given names so they can be properly identified. There are wall clouds, mammatus clouds, contrails, pileus and billow clouds. Contrails are actually short for condensation trails and these clouds have the appearance of a kite’s tail and are called man-made clouds. Mammatus are pouch-like clouds and they are ominous-looking but are actually very harmless. The pileus cloud is otherwise known as cap clouds. They form when water-containing air is lifted up in the windward side of a slope, thus forming a cap. Billow clouds are named as such because of their appearance. These clouds look like a row of flat eddies with a layer of vertical trim.

Essence of Clouds in Weather Forecasting

Clouds play a huge role in weather forecasting and it is ironic to note that while clouds are being used to predict the weather, they also react to climate change. A cumulus cluster of clouds means a sunny day. See-through wisps of clouds could mean light snow or rain. Thus, people only need to look up and determine if the weather for the day is going to be good or bad.

Essentially, clouds are important in weather conditions if only to produce precipitation and control the Earth’s radiation balance. They should not be used as a method of precisely predicting the weather because they are prone to change. Unless you have studied clouds extensively, do not attempt to use clouds for weather forecasting. Case in point, some dark and ominous-looking clouds may actually be pretty harmless.

Significance of Names of Clouds Nephology

Ordinary people take clouds for granted. They only look up to the sky to check if it is cloudy and if rain or snow is coming. Other than that, they cannot be bothered with knowing their names. But naming clouds also plays a role in weather forecasting. Meteorologists can identify a specific cloud formation and they can tell if a certain cloud will bring precipitation or if it is just a harmless cloud. Naming clouds is also important to students. Clouds can be very beautiful to look at and students may be encouraged to study cloud physics in the future because they were able to learn so much about it early on.

Back to Top