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The joy of cloudspotting

by Shreya Yadav

When I landed in San Francisco a few years ago and got in the air train to the city, the first thing I noticed were the clouds outside the window. I had never seen clouds like this before. Soft white curls rolled across the horizon in perfect Van Gogh waves, swirling like cream in a liquid blue sky. I was stunned. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this. If they were, they didn’t look so excited. “Kelvin-Helmholtz in the sky!” I texted a friend in disbelief, paying no attention to the fact that I was trying to use an Indian number in the U.S. These cloud formations had been on my radar for a while. They form when air currents of differing speeds push the cloud in different directions, usually making the top part of the cloud roll over its base. It is the same with waves when they break on shore – the lower parts of the wave slow down as the wave hits shallow ground while its crest tumbles ahead and crashes.

I’m a nervous traveller. New places demand your full attention, and I have a tendency to forget things. Bus schedules, train timings, pocket change, a cardigan… I am always missing something crucial, and so I am always a bit on edge, aware of my unpreparedness in a foreign environment. But inevitably at some point I look up and see clouds. They are usually always hanging in the sky, sometimes like benign and lazy poodles (cumulus humilis), sometimes high and wispy (cirrus fibratus), sometimes poking upward in turrets (cumulus castellanus) or lying flat against the sky, tired at the end of the day (altostratus). And very soon a place doesn’t seem so new and unfamiliar anymore.

A club for cloudspotting

I was content just to look at clouds until a friend presented me with a book one day. It was called The Cloudspotters Guide, written by an Englishman named Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I devoured the book in a day, surprised by how much more there was to clouds than just fluff. For instance, I knew clouds had names, but I had no idea their naming followed a Linnaean system of classification .Clouds are made up of different “species” and varieties, just like birds or plants. But unlike birds and plants, one species of cloud can quite quickly drift into another. In fact in 2008, Pretor-Pinney, who founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and runs its website (which has a gallery for posting cloud photos), noticed that people were submitting photos of a cloud type that had never been seen before. Even though it resembled a couple of cloud varieties, it didn’t quite match all their characteristics. In 2014, the World Meteorological Organization recognized this “new” cloud as asperitas, which roughly translates to “roughened sea” because of the way it rolls across the sky in dark waves.

And then there are much older clouds, clouds that are famous because of the places they are associated with. When you think of Mount Fuji, do you not also think of the spaceship-like altocumulus lenticularis that hovers over its summit? Or the contrails (condensation trails) of planes that steak the skies of New York? The dense and foreboding cumulonimbus of the Bombay monsoon? Hawaii is well known for its rainbows (which are also clouds) and Bangalore for its cotton ball altocumulus floccus.

As the climate and weather of the earth change, clouds too are bound to appear in new and interesting forms. So far, none that we know of seem to have gone extinct. This makes cloudspotting a very comforting and pleasant activity – and you can do it from anywhere you like, just as long as you have the open sky above you.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 31 August 2016.

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