Learn How to Identify Cloud Types

You may have learned the names of the different types of clouds when you were in school, but do you remember them or their beauty?

Clouds are beautiful aren’t they?  I love clouds.  From low hanging wisps to roaring thunderheads.  If the majesty of the earth are it’s mountains, then the majesty of the sky must certainly be clouds.

Cloud Names: Cumulus, Stratus, Cirrus, and Nimbus

Clouds are named based on the Latin word for what they look like to an observer on the ground.

  • Cumulus = heaped, or bunched up
  • Stratus = layered, in layers
  • Cirrus = curl, or curl of hair, strand of hair
  • Nimbus = rain, or wet

Clouds are also identified and named by the height of their cloud base.The prefix Cir- meaning high level, and Alto-identifying it as a mid level cloud.  Just by learning these Latin words you will be able to look into the sky almost anytime and name the cloud formation of the day.

High Level Clouds: Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, and Cirrostratus

High-level clouds form above 20,000 feet and are made of ice crystals.  These are Cirrus clouds.  Remember, like strands or curls of hair, thin and wispy.


These are Cirrocumulus clouds.  Remember the name modifier, these are high and thin, but also bunched or heaped together in lumps, not like hair at all.


The last high level type is the Cirrostratus.  Hazy, like a veil, possibly with a halo because of the effect it has on light from the Sun.


Mid Level Clouds: Altocumulus, and Altostratus

Mid level clouds appear between 6500 and 20000 feet.  Generally consisting of water droplets, they may sometimes be ice crystals if the temperature is low enough. 

These are Altocumulus clouds, alto  “high” or “higher than most” and cumulus “heaps”.  These clouds are bunched up masses, although they are larger and darker than the Cirrocumulus, but smaller than the Stratocumulus.


Altostratus clouds tend to be uniform and gray.  Sheet-like across the sky.  These are the clouds that are dangerous for airplanes because they can cause ice to form.


Low Level Clouds: Cumulus, Stratus, Stratocumulus, Nimbostratus, and Cumulonimbus

Low level clouds usually have bases that are below 6500 feet.  The consist of water droplets, although again if the temperature is cold enough there may be ice crystals. 

Cumulus clouds are, in general, what everyone thinks of when the word cloud comes to mind.


Stratus clouds, again, identified by the name meaning layers, are usually uniform in their appearance, as though a sheet had been stretched across the sky.  Stratus clouds are what most people think of as a cloudy day.


Below, stratocumulus clouds may indicate bad weather coming.  They appeared clumped together in layers.  Again, the key to remembering the names of clouds is to remember those four Latin words and a couple modifiers.


Nimbostratus clouds are, can you guess?  Nimbo-, meaning rain, and -stratus meaning layers.  These are the grey overcast cast clouds of your typical rainy weather.


They mean moderate to heavy rain, or snow if conditions are right.

Some of the most dramatic clouds are Cumulonimbus clouds.  While their bases start low like other cumulus clouds they can rise vertically to towering heights.  These produce heavy precipitation and are the major lightning producers.  These types of clouds can also go on to develop into “super-cells” which are severe type of thunderstorm weather.


These are the major classifications of clouds, there are several modifiers that can be used.  Here are a few of them for you viewing pleasure.

Other types of cloud formations

Cumulonimbus Capillatus

Stratocumulus Lenticularis

Cirrus Intortus

Cirrus Uncinus

Cirrus Aviaticus

Also known as a contrail.  These are made from the passage of an airplane.

Cirrostratus Undulatus

Stratus Fractus

A tag along cloud remnant that is not a part of the main body of clouds.  Here the low hanging cloud is the Stratus Fractus.

Cumulus Castelanus

Growing up with several towers it looks like a castle made of clouds.

These cloud types you have just browsed through, you see they have additional modifiers.

  • Capillatus – Cumulonimbus cloud with cirriform top.
  • Calvus – Cumulonimbus with puffy rounded top.
  • Incus – Cumulonimbus with flat anvil-like top.
  • Pileus – Small cap-like cloud over a cumulonimbus cloud.
  • Mammatus – Cumulonimbus with bubbles on the underside.
  • Arcus – Low, horizontal cloud formation that precedes a thunderstorm.
  • Congestus – moderate development and heaped into cauliflower shapes.
  • Fibratus – thin fibrous type clouds.
  • Nebulosus – indistinct cloud without features.
  • Fractus – a fractured appearance.
  • Uncinus – hook shaped.
  • Intortus –all twisted up.
  • Lacunosus – open spots and ragged edges.

This is by no means a complete list.  But I hope you enjoyed the tour.

And last but not least, one of my favorites because it usually sparks calls regarding UFOs the Lenticular.

Lenticular Wave Cloud

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7 Responses to “Learn How to Identify Cloud Types”
  1. Angela DiAngelo Says...

    On August 4, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Good, good article. I am going back over it again. Just os interesting.

  2. Scubadoc Says...

    On September 20, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    I love it to the max…I am coming back over and over again!

  3. Milena Says...

    On January 29, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Thank you I just love this simple explanation and great photos. Makes it easy to understand and remember. :)

  4. Keba Says...

    On October 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Great i l0ve learng abt dis

  5. Yuki Says...

    On July 29, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you i can now determine if a storm is comming or not.

  6. jade Says...

    On November 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    love it

  7. Mesha Says...

    On November 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm


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