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Weathercatch: Time to get our heads in the clouds

By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

During this stressful period in history, there’s no need to travel anywhere for psychic refuge. Just step outside or peer out a window and … look up.

From cotton puffs and thunderheads to wisps and waves, clouds come in a slew of shapes and sizes. Not only do they play a crucial role in weather forecasts and warnings, but they produce precipitation that fills lakes and streams and nourishes crops and forests. And when intense sunlight bares down in summer, they provide passing shade.

What’s more, these shapes in the sky are beauty in plain sight, inspiring famous artists for centuries. Imagine works by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet or Georgia O’Keeffe devoid of clouds.

“We love clouds,” proclaims the Cloud Appreciation Society on its website. Among other things, the society comprised of 50,000 members worldwide strives to get people to see clouds as “nature’s poetry,” not signs of gloom.

With a pandemic decreasing life’s daily pace and forcing us to stay close to home, perhaps now is a good time to take a fresh look at clouds. Look up at the sky and see a parade of cotton balls, a billowing dragon, delicate feathers, an angel or two. Oh, and that giant slate of gunmetal gray that covered the Inland Northwest on Monday? The dark, uniform cloud cover, called nimbostratus, is so saturated with water that it can’t reflect light. The term is derived from Latin “nimbus,” which means rain, and “stratus,” meaning spread out.

Whether nimbostratus, cumulus, cirrus or cumulonimbus, clouds are jam-packed with tiny water droplets or ice crystals, depending on their altitude. Think of them as liquid disguised as solid objects suspended by rising air currents. Light reflecting off their uneven surfaces helps determine color and tone.

The World Meteorological Organization categorizes clouds into 10 basic types, based on their general appearance and altitude level. These types are further divided into 15 species (Yes, species!), depending on shape and structure and then into nine subgroups called varieties that identify how transparent a cloud is and how it’s arranged. For example, whether it’s translucent enough for the sun or moon to be seen, or if it has holes, patches or ribs.

Another thing about clouds – like emotions, good days and bad days, they come and go. As we continue to modify our lives and hunker down, peer skyward and see clouds in a new light.

Nic Loyd is a meteorologist in Washington. Linda Weiford is a writer in Moscow, Idaho, who’s also a weather geek. Contact:

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