“Wow! Have you seen how blue the sky is today?” Most people talk about the beauty of the blue sky, but have you considered how interesting the sky is when it is full of clouds of different sizes and shapes? While the science behind why the sky is blue is fascinating, clouds are intriguing as well.
So, what exactly are clouds? The scientific definition is a massive aerosol composed of liquid, ice or other particles suspended in the atmosphere. Basically, clouds are huge blobs of water droplets. The huge part is really enormous too. If you add up all the miniscule water particles in a medium cumulus cloud (the cotton ball kind you drew as a kid), altogether they equal the weight of about eighty elephants.
These gigantic formations have a life of their own. The life of a cumulus cloud can be described using the motion inside a lava lamp. While lava lamps consist of liquid and clouds consist of gases, it is the same general idea. A ploughed field that has been warmed up by the sun acts like the hot light bulb in the lamp. This field then warms up the air above it making the air expand and become less dense, so it can move up toward the cooler air (like the oil expanding in the lava lamp and floating upward). Then the air, with hidden moisture in it, moves away from the heated field and the cooler air descends and replaces it. In the lava lamp, the oil comes back down because it gets colder and denser.
You might be wondering why clouds are able to stay up in the sky and not sink like the oil in the lamp. Clouds are massive and heavy, but the water particles are so small and spread out that gravity is almost negligible. Additionally, clouds stay afloat because of a concept called latent heat. Latent heat occurs when water condenses from vapor into liquid droplets and gives off heat into the surrounding air. With droplets forming and latent heat being released, the surrounding air warms, so that the air expands and the droplets float upward.
As the warm air and moisture that rises from the field cools, some of the water vapor condenses back into visible droplets and forms a cloud! Heat has now been released. Therefore, the air becomes more buoyant and it floats upward, creating more clouds. As this process repeats, more droplets are formed, more heat is released and the cloud grows larger. When the lifetime of the cloud ends, the moisture will precipitate as rain.
Some clouds produce precipitation, and others do not. Given the multitude of cloud types — low level and high-level, liquid or ice, cumulus or stratus, etc. — each cloud looks different and will produce different types of weather. While clouds affect weather, they also influence climate change. The shape and number of cloud particles affect the amount of solar radiation reflected. Furthermore, changes in global temperature can change the location, extent and type of cloud, which in turn has a warming or cooling effect, known as climate change feedback. The field of clouds and climate is less advanced than climate and greenhouse gases, but connections exist between the two areas. For example, climate change feedback from clouds can either offset or amplify any changes due to greenhouse gas emissions.
Clouds are not only studied in a scientific manner, but these breathtaking formations are found in art and literature as well. In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus is the lord of the sky and the god of rain and the cloud-gatherer. Clouds can be seen in 16th-century mythological art, as Zeus had a slight obsession with transforming himself into a cloud. This can be seen through multiple paintings and images from that time. Clouds are also used in poetry and descriptive writing to add emotion and texture.
Clouds do a lot more in the world than just rain down on us. If you are interested in the science and beauty of clouds, be sure to check out the Cloud Appreciation Society (https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/) for further information and stunning photographs.