Naming Clouds

Above: Naming Clouds

Naming Clouds

When you were a child sitting through Science class and learning about clouds, didn't you once wonder why the names of clouds were made in such a way? Who would've thought of making cloud names like cirrus, stratus, nimbus, and cumulus? It could have been way easier remembering all of them if they were just classified as Cloud 1, 2, 3 and 4. But of course, there is a reason for everything and the man who made the system for naming clouds has a scientific basis for doing so.

Get to know the man behind the system of naming clouds, a bit about his life, his studies, and the classifications he came up with which are still being used until the present time.

The Man Behind Cloud Naming

Everyone who went to grade school and high school learned about the different clouds but only a few who will wonder why they are named this way. Who is responsible for naming clouds? He is Luke Howard.

Howard is not a scientist and he never tried to be. He was an English chemist who owned a pharmaceutical company called Howard and Sons Ltd. Luke Howard is sometimes called the “Cloud Man” or the “Godfather of Clouds.” He was also called the “Father of Meteorology” because his contributions have been used since the 1800s and are still being used today. In fact, in 1821, he was awarded the Fellow of the Royal Society for his great contribution in meteorology.

Luke Howard was born in England in 1772. He studied chemistry and learned how to be a businessman. However, at an early age, he grew to love meteorology including the weather and the clouds. He was a great writer and editor, which led him to write his first textbook about the weather in his Seven Lecture in Meteorology. His book, “Climate of London” is known to be the first book in urban climatology.

People Who Attempted to Name the Clouds

Luke Howard was doing well with his pharmaceutical business but he never ignored his love for clouds and the weather. But he wasn’t the only one who attempted to name clouds in the past. There were many people who tried, and one of them was Robert Hooke (1635-1703) who made a system of cloud naming on his own. He described the clouds as “faces in the sky” but his system was found to be too loose. He only described clouds using adjectives like “heavy, thick, and wavy” and this wasn’t enough. Hooke lost interest in clouds after this.

Societas Meteorologica Palatina attempted to make a system of cloud naming in the 1700s. They established more than 50 weather stations from Siberia to Europe crossing North America. All these weather stations were used to gather cloud and weather observations to come up with a naming scheme based on color and shape. But by 1975, the French Revolutionary Army destroyed the city of Mannheim and this permanently stopped their efforts.

Another man popular for his attempt in naming clouds was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and he tried to classify clouds based on their altitudes. His attempt was too loose and was rejected.

The System of Cloud Naming

Luke Howard was always reading Greek and Latin books, which made him very knowledgeable about these languages. Little did he know that later on, he would be using his Latin skills to create a naming scheme for clouds. Howard’s cloud naming scheme was detailed and exact which is why it was easily accepted by meteorology groups and organizations. He based his findings on the shape, color, and height of clouds and detailed them exactly using Latin words.

Cirrus, stratus, cumulus, and nimbus are the four types of clouds he named and they are distinguished from one another using his naming scheme. But Luke Howard wasn’t only basing his study on the appearance of clouds; he was also studying about the effect of the weather on the clouds. He believed that clouds are good visible indicators of the changes and instability in the atmosphere.

He stressed that clouds are signs of atmospheric processes and they can tell you what is happening in the sky. This means that when the cloud is changing, a good observer can tell what is going to happen next. His exact and detailed naming scheme made it easier for modern day meteorologists to determine the different types of clouds. His essay on clouds predicting the weather has also been very helpful. Moreover, included in his system of cloud naming is a system of shorthand notation symbols, which is used in cloud observations, universally.

The Classification of Clouds

Luke Howard classified clouds into 3 basic shapes-- the cumulus, stratus and cirrus. All these names were based on their Latin meanings.

  1. Cumulus—Cumulus in Latin means heaps. These clouds are usually in masses or heaps with tops looking like cauliflowers with flat bottoms. They look like bunched up puffy cotton in the air.
  2. Stratus—Stratus in Latin means layer. These layers of clouds look like blankets and mattresses in the sky. These clouds are distinguished for their wideness.
  3. Cirrus—Cirrus in Latin means curl. Cirrus clouds look like curly and wispy hair up in the sky. They are quite thin and often look like a child’s hair.

There is a fourth classification of clouds named nimbus, which in Latin means rain. This cloud doesn’t have any specific shape and is often in combination with other clouds. Clouds that will cause precipitation will have the name nimbus on them like cumulonimbus or nimbostratus.

The 12 Major Cloud Types

There are three layers in the atmosphere and with the four types of clouds out there, there are 12 major cloud types being used today. These 12 major cloud types all emerged from the cloud naming system that Howard developed.

  • Cumulus Family: Heaps, Puffy, Cotton-Like
    • Cumulus (fair-weather)
    • Swelling Cumulus
    • Cumulus Congestus (towering cumulus)
  • Stratus Family: Layers, Blankets
    • Stratus
    • Altostratus
    • Cirrostratus
  • Raining Cloud Family
    • Cirrus
    • Nimbostratus
    • Cumulonimbus
  • Heaps and Layered
    • Stratocumulus
    • Altocumulus
    • Cirrocumulus

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