Monday, November 30, 2015

A Man with His Head In the Clouds

Altocumulus clouds. Photo by Steve Hilberg
One of the most fascinating aspects of weather and the most visible is clouds. Clouds are the telltale indicators that provide clues to what the weather is and may be doing. Nothing may be more frustrating to a meteorologist or weather fan than not having access to a window through which to observe the sky.

Most of us learned about the basic types of clouds some time in school. Clouds fall into general classifications as high, middle, low, or accessory clouds. You may be familiar with some of the specific names, such as cirrus, stratus, and cumulonimbus. What you may not be familiar with is how clouds got their names.

Luke Howard (1772-1864)
In 1802 an English pharmacist and pharmaceutical manufacturer with a lifelong interest in meteorology proposed a cloud classification system in a paper presented to the Askesian Society, a debating club for scientific thinkers in London. The paper, "Essay on the Modification of Clouds", was published in 1803. The man, Luke Howard, was trained as a business man but had a passion for the weather. In the paper he named the three major classifications of clouds - cirrus, stratus, and cumulus, as well as all of the modifications and intermediate stages of clouds.

Drawing of clouds from Luke Howard's sketchbook.
Howard was not the first to propose a cloud classification system. Years earlier a French man, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, proposed a cloud description regime in French. Howard grounded his classification scheme in Latin, which led to it being more readily accepted than other proposed classifications. He used the same taxonomy classification principles used in the field of natural history to classify plants and animals. Like animal or plant taxonomy, clouds are classified in terms of genus, family, species,and varieties. He realized that clouds were the windows to the state of the atmosphere.

Howard's contributions to meteorology weren't limited to clouds. He was the first to document the urban heat island, noting that temperatures in London were warmer at night than the surrounding countryside and cooler during the day. Howard published The Climate of London which documented continuous observations of temperature, rainfall, and air pressure. He presented seven lectures on meteorology and wrote other articles on the topic. Howard was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821, the highest scientific honor at that time, for his work in meteorology.

You can read more about Luke Howard in the following articles: Luke Howard --"The Godfather of Clouds", a web site created by Dr. John Day. The Royal Meteorological Society has a web page, "Luke Howard and Cloud Names"

Cloud enthusiasts have a number of outlets and resources available. The Cloud Appreciation Society promotes interest in and photography of clouds. The Society connects clouds lovers across the world, and is the web site for everything clouds. 

On Facebook the Community Cloud Atlas is a page where participants can post cloud photos and get help identifying clouds. is an online cloud atlas that goes into detail on describing the taxonomy of clouds, including photographs and the ability to upload cloud photos.

Keep your eyes on the sky - you never know what you might see!

An approaching shelf cloud. Photo by Steve Hilberg

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