The Water Cycle - Condensation

As the water vapor rises into the atmosphere, it cools, and condenses forming droplets of water which join together into clouds. 

Did you know that there are 27 different classifications of cloud? Meteorologists use height, shape, colour, and associated weather to describe the different types. Out of these 27, there are 10 main categories that are more common.

One of the first things that scientists look at when determining cloud types, is the height, or altitude of the cloud. Effectively, they divide the sky into three sections: from the ground to 2.5 kilometres into the air; then from 2.5 kilometres to six kilometres high, and anything above six kilometres.

Low-level clouds

Stratocumulus
Stratocumulus clouds are usually made of water droplets, and can be identified by the bumps and lumps at the base of the cloud formation, with darker and lighter regions. They are typically between 200 and 400 metres thick, and can extend for a thousand kilometres across the sky.

Stratus
Similar to stratocumulus clouds, stratus clouds are less bumpy on the base, presenting a smoother, lower surface to look at. Between stratus and stratocumulus clouds, the two cover as much as 30 per cent of the globe. A stratus cloud formation can last for days, and extend across hundreds of kilometres.

Cumulus
Cumulus clouds might be the type that we most think of when we picture clouds. They tend to be scattered across the sky, or in small groups, but with lots of patches of sky able to be seen also. Because they’re also quite low in the sky, these, too, tend to be made of droplets of liquid water.

Look and see! Cumulus clouds often make shapes that look like animals and other things. Next time there’s fluffy clouds in the sky, why not go outside, lie on the grass and see what shapes you can find?

Cumulonimbus

Cumulonimbus clouds are a special type that can be up to 2 km high, but even stretch as high as 20 km, meaning that they can cross through the various altitudes that are used to classify clouds. Cumulonimbus clouds are often associated with thunderstorms and lightning.

Mid-level Clouds

Altocumulus

Because they’re higher up than the fluffy cumulus clouds, altocumulus generally contain more ice particles, and look less solid. Generally white or a light grey, altocumulus clouds don’t usually bring precipitation.

Did you know? Contrails are left behind aeroplanes because heat from the plane mixes with the cold air droplets, forming crystals. It’s like the vapor you can see when you breathe out on a cold day.

Altostratus

Like Stratus clouds, altostratus cloud formations tend to have a fairly uniform base when looking at them from the ground. This appearance is partially due to the presence of precipitation - rain or snow droplets that usually don’t actually reach the ground, instead evaporating again from midair.

Nimbostratus

Nimbostratus clouds are dark grey and solid enough that you can’t see the sun through them. These clouds look a little lower than altostratus, and can be responsible for bringing heavier rain or snow precipitation.

High-level Clouds

Cirrus

In most cases, high level clouds don’t bring any rain or precipitation. The latin word Cirrus means a lock or tuft of hair, which is how these clouds appear, like wisping locks of white hair high up in the sky.

Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus clouds have small ripples, and are patchy in appearance. They often don’t stay visible for long, forming and then dispersing and vanishing from view soon after. Unlike the other high level clouds, cirrocumulus clouds are often made of water droplets rather than ice crystals.

Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus clouds are almost transparent, they are so high and so wispy. In fact, sometimes they are so thin that the only sign they are there is a halo effect around the sun or the moon, where the light is refracting (bending/ warping). Cirrostratus clouds don’t bring precipitation, but can help predict rainfall arriving soon.

Cloud Types

Make your own cloud-in-a-jar

Did you know that you can create your own cloud? You'll need a few household items, including:

  • A glass jar with the labels removed so you can see;
  • Boiling water to fill the jar about a third full
  • A can of hairspray
  • Ice cubes to cover the lid of the jar.

(Always be careful with boiling water - ask an adult help you with this).

Step One

Pour the boiling water into the jar.
(Tip: You may want to use food colouring in the water to really make it stand out in the cloud).

Step Two

Spray a generous amount of hairspray into the jar.
(Tip: Keep the lid on hand to make sure you can snap it on quickly. It may help to have another person with you).

Step Three

Quickly put the lid onto the jar and seal it tight.

Step Four

Place ice cubes onto the lid of the jar.

Now just wait and watch.

So what's going on?

Even in this small space, small particles of water are being evaporated in the jar. As they rise, the ice on the top of the jar causes the temperature to change and the water particles to cool down, forming condensation. You'll see that some of the condensation is occurring on the lid and sides of the jar where water is running back down the sides. However, some of the evaporated water is also condensing onto the hairspray, which is acting like miniscule particles of dust, dirt, ash and other things in Earth's atmosphere. This is what forms the cloud.

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