Cloud Spotting: Choose A Life Less Ordinary

We caught up with the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, to find out a little bit more about the art of cloud spotting.

I’ve always felt that the most interesting parts of life are to be found hidden away amongst the everyday, ordinary stuff. Clouds are a great example. You don’t have to cross the world to see amazing and exotic cloud formations. All you need to do is pay attention to the sky drifting overhead as you go about your day.

Cumulus Clouds over Crimdon Beach, County Durham by Julie Bestford

The problem is that we tend to take clouds for granted. They are so commonplace that we are blind to them. We only notice them when they block out the sun, cast their shadows down upon us. For this reason many of us in Britain consider them in a negative way – clouds come to represent the annoying obstructions in life, the things that get in the way. But that’s where we’re wrong. We need reminding that these ordinary, everyday atmospheric phenomena are not something to moan about. They are the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature. Which is why, ten years ago, I started The Cloud Appreciation Society.

Cirrus Clouds over Alresford, Hampshire by Allan Bird

The Society began in 2004, at The Port Eliot Festival, in Cornwall. I gave a talk there, which I called ‘The Inaugural Lecture of The Cloud Appreciation Society’. My friend, who was running the event, had asked me to speak because she knew that I loved clouds. I hadn’t actually started any society at that point, but I thought that this sounded like an intriguing name for a talk – one that would encourage people to come along. The name worked. The talk was full, but everyone came up to me afterwards to ask how they could join The Cloud Appreciation Society. That’s when I realised that perhaps we need a society that reminds us to see the positives in clouds. They are what bring variety and drama to our skies. It was about time someone stood up for them.

Cumulonimbus Storm Cloud over Sao Jose dos Campo, Brazil by Guilherme Touchtenhagen Schild

News about the society soon spread, and we now have over 36,000 members in 94 countries around the world. They range from six year olds old to pensioners, from landscape painters to airline pilots, daydreamers to cloud physicists – all of them united by their shared appreciation of this most universal part of nature. Members send us photographs of weird and wonderful cloud formations from where they live, and we post them on our ever-growing Cloud Gallery. With such an extensive network of cloudspotters, the wealth of formations is now unrivalled.

Horseshoe Vortex Cloud over Huntersville, North Carolina, US by Lauren Antanaitis

Some send in common clouds like the fair-weather Cumulus that appear low in the sky on a sunny day and look like stacked clumps of cotton wool or the high, translucent streaks of ice-crystals, known as Cirrus, after the Latin for a lock of hair. Others send us images of mighty Cumulonimbus storm clouds. Considered the ‘King of Clouds’, this beast of the atmosphere has an enormous canopy that spreads outwards at the top, resembling an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, and produces thunder, lightning and heavy downpours. Our worldwide network of cloud nerds also send in more exotic and unusual formations, such as the rare Kelvin-Helmholtz wave cloud, which looks like a series of breaking waves, or the horseshoe vortex cloud, that looks like an upside-down horseshoe of cloud, which gently rotates in the sky before it dissipates away.

Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Cloud over Grangeville, Idaho, US by John Bennett

Contributions from our members have even resulted in what may become the first new classification of cloud to be added to the official naming system since 1951. It looks like a rough, turbulent sea surface viewed from below, which is why I called it ‘asperatus’, from the Latin word used to describe how the wind whips up ocean waves. A cloud type is only considered official when it is included in ‘The International Cloud Atlas’, a reference work published by The World Meteorological Organisation in Geneva. They are planning a new edition of the book next year, and they’ve said that it is likely asperatus will be accepted as a new official classification.

Asperatus Cloud over Duffel, Belgium, by Brecht Iliaens

But cloudspotting isn’t just about nerdy classification. It’s also about finding shapes! I’ve always encouraged members to send in clouds that look like things. We get clouds in the shape of dogs, elephants, goldfish… We’ve had one that looked like the Abominable Snowman with a gun, one with a remarkable likeness of the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (which seems appropriate enough), and then there was one that looked like a topless sunbather. Clouds are nature’s version of those ink-blot images that shrinks used to show their patients in the 1960s. If you consider the shapes you see in them you’ll save money on psychoanalysis bills. We all used to do it when we were kids, but finding shapes in the clouds is not something we do so much as adults.

Asperatus Cloud over Newtonia, Missouri, US, by Elaine Patrick

It is an aimless pastime – one that doesn’t feel as if it is going to achieve much. But just because it’s aimless doesn’t mean its pointless. With the relentless pace of the modern world, I think we need excuses to do nothing. We need to return, every now and then, to that frame of mind that came so easily in our youth – back when we were masters of daydreaming. That is when we are able, once again, to be amazed and delighted by the everyday, ordinary parts of our surroundings, which everyone else ignores.

Interesting Shaped Clouds

A Dog over Soldiers Point, Australia, by Terry Linsell
A Goldfish Over the Blasket Islands, County Kerry, Ireland, by Gavin Tobin
The Abominable Snowman Going To Rob a Bank Houston, Texas, US, by Jason Tack
Salvador Dalí over Nizza, France, by Annegret Richter
A Topless Sunbather Wooler, Northumberland, UK, by Sue Shaw

If you like clouds, why not have a look at our cloud related offerings.

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