Weather Watching – Cloud Observation

Weather Watching HeaderAt this time of year, survivalists, preppers, and homesteaders are all busy getting outside after the long winter months. Whether they are practicing outdoor skills, working on their preps, or planting their gardens, one variable is present no matter where they live or what they may be doing: the weather.

The weather could determine if you are successful with your crops this season. It could also help or hinder your plans to practice necessary skills. In addition, weather, in its most severe forms, could also be the cause of a serious emergency. If you are into preparedness, you must be aware of the weather.

As we head deep into spring, one can greatly benefit from learning the skills of weather observation and weather prediction. To do this, one need not have expensive equipment. Believe it or not, a thermometer, a rain gauge, and a keen eye can go a long way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the ability to predict long-range forecasts over a wide area.   That would take more advanced equipment, and even professionals who use that equipment are not able to successfully predict the weather 100%. I’m speaking of the ability to get a good idea what would likely be heading your way in the next day or so. This would be especially useful if you did not have access to forecasts from TV, print, or radio.

This is the first post of a four-part series on weather watching. This post will focus on what is the first set of skills related to observing and predicting the weather: cloud observation.

In my studies, I have found the best layman’s guide available for learning these skills to be The Weather Wizard’s Cloud Book: A Unique Way to Predict the Weather Accurately and Easily by Reading the Clouds by Jim Duncan. In this book, the author instructs the reader on how to identify different cloud formations and the weather related to each. It has included in it a field guide of sorts to assist with cloud identification, and it also instructs on what weather is likely to follow such clouds depending on other weather conditions. The methods are so effective, in fact, that the creator of these methods, Louis Rubin Sr., often beat the regional weather forecasters on a regular basis and became to be known as the “Weather Wizard.” As one learns and practices these skills, he or she will begin to be able to “read the sky” and will be able to closely predict what kind of weather to expect and to prepare for soon. The best part about these skills is that one can apply them wherever they may find themselves without having to carry or depend upon additional equipment…it is a very useful “bug out” survival skill.

I cannot detail all of the methods here, as that amount of instruction would equal another book. Hence, I am giving you my advice to add this book to your prepper library. It is not a long book. It is compact, and it is fairly easy to read. Having it on hand to assist you in these skills would definitely be a benefit. However, I will give you some highlights.

Again, the first set of weather observation skills to learn is how to identify clouds. Presented here is a basic overview. There are low, medium-height, and high atmospheric clouds. There are also some types of clouds which extend themselves vertically through the different levels of the sky. Each cloud type has identifiable characteristics. Each also can help one to predict the weather when combined with other observations such as the wind direction and the humidity.

Beginning with the low-level clouds, the basic types are stratus, stratocumulus, and cumulus clouds.

Stratus Clouds

Stratus clouds are low-level clouds that are best described as “above the ground fog.” They are often seen like a blanket, and could appear nearly white to dark grey. The precipitation associated with these clouds, if any, is usually a light rain or a light snow.

Stratocumulus Clouds

Stratocumulus clouds are thicker than stratus clouds. Therefore they produce more precipitation. They have a blanket-like appearance, but they differ than stratus clouds in that they often appear in waves or in rolls, with lines of clear sky sometimes in between. Often the appearance of stratocumulus clouds means cooler weather is ahead.

Cumulus Clouds

Cumulus clouds are interesting. These are the idealistic “cotton ball” clouds which appear separate from each other. Depending on their behavior, it could mean fair skies, or it could mean severe storms are on their way.   If these clouds look to be fairly flat, they are usually associated with good weather. If they begin to grow vertically, then it is best to keep an eye on them. If their vertical height begins to grow, it means the clouds are developing into precipitation clouds. This is especially true if their vertical appearance equals or exceeds their horizontal length. Cumulus clouds can grow high into the atmosphere. More of this will be spoken of later.

There are two main types of mid-level clouds: altocumulus and altostratus.

Altocumulus Clouds

Altocumulus clouds form sheets of clouds in the middle levels of the troposphere. (The troposphere is the portion of the atmosphere closest to the ground and where most weather takes place.) They can appear as lines, sheets, or waves. They often appear broken up. Altocumulus clouds often precede overcast skies, and often precipitation within several hours. This is especially true if the elements of the altocumulus clouds are developing into thick groups of cumulus clouds.

Altostratus Clouds

Altostratus clouds form what appears to be a thick haze in the mid-levels of the sky. These clouds can roll in ahead of precipitation or overcast skies depending on the direction of the wind.

As for high-level clouds, the main types are cirrus clouds, cirrocumulus clouds, and cirrostratus clouds.

Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus clouds are high, wispy formations that look like feathers. They are made up of ice crystals. Depending on the direction of the wind, they may predict good weather, or they may be the advance warning of rain or snow within the next day or two.

Cirrocumulus Clouds

Cirrocumulus clouds are thin sheets of clouds high in the troposphere. They often look rippled or like lines in the sky, or they can appear as a blanket of small patches. What weather will follow depends largely on the direction of the wind. Therefore, their appearance in the sky very often means uncertain weather ahead.

Cirrostratus Clouds

Cirrostratus clouds are a high haze. They are transparent, and will give the sun or moon a halo effect. They often precede overcast skies, but they may also predict rain depending on the wind.

Most clouds can be identified by where they lie in the atmosphere. However, some clouds can occupy more than one layer. These multi-level clouds need to be observed as they are the ones which bring the weather of most concern. These multi-level clouds are cumulus, nimbostratus, and cumulonimbus.

As described before, cumulus clouds are low-level clouds. That is, their bases are relatively not far from the ground. When they remain “flat,” they are known as fair weather clouds. However, just as described before, they can develop and grow vertically when conditions are right. This is when they become “multi-level” clouds since they are capable of growing tall through the highest levels of the troposphere. As said before, this normally produces precipitation. When you notice vertically-expanding cumulus clouds, keep an eye on the sky to determine how fast the clouds are growing and in what direction are they moving.

Cumulus Development
These pictures illustrate the different phases of cumulus development.
Nimbostratus Clouds

Nimbostratus clouds occupy the low to mid-levels of the troposphere. They are thick and grey. They are water clouds which are capable of large amounts of rain. The difference between these clouds and stratus clouds is that stratus clouds produce just a light drizzle.

Cumulonimbus Cloud

Cumulonimbus clouds develop from cumulus clouds. This is what occurs when cumulus clouds grow so big and tall that they reach the higher levels of the sky. These are the thunderstorm clouds. Their obvious appearance sets them apart making them easily identifiable. They often grow mushroom shapes or anvil tops as the clouds are forced to grow sideways when they reach the highest levels of the troposphere. It should go without saying that these clouds must be watched. It is because cumulonimbus clouds can produce large amounts of rain. They are also responsible for lighting, hail, and other dangerous weather elements. These clouds can also affect the air currents surrounding them causing strong wind outflows known as microbursts or macrobursts. They are, of course, also to blame for tornados. Also, clusters of cumulonimbus clouds can align themselves to form storm fronts which can move across landscapes leaving destruction in their paths. Because of the possibilities they present, cumulonimbus clouds should be a worthy topic of interest to the prepper.

This was a very simplified overview of cloud identification, and it is not meant to be a full instruction since there are too many variables to the weather. The identification of clouds is a first step towards weather observation and prediction. Here is a pdf visual reference put out by the National Weather Service. Please remember that in order to better predict the weather, cloud identification must also be accompanied by monitoring the speed and the direction of the wind. It is also very helpful to be able to combine these observations with measurements of air pressure and humidity as well. As one learns and gains the skills of cloud identification, along with other weather skills, one could gain the ability to get a good general idea of where the weather is heading in the next day or so. This, in turn, gives one the chance to make necessary preparations or plans for whatever activities are affected by the weather, which is pretty much everything.

Next week: the skills of wind observation


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