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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: We’re entering the cloudiest time of year – look up and marvel

By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

With more clouds filling Spokane’s skies in December and January than any other time of year, now is the time to see their silver lining.

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited our activities and travel options and many of us are feeling pent up.

Rather than approach winter’s increasing clouds with a feeling of dread, consider stepping outside and simply looking up.

After all, it costs nothing to view them, and they’re calming, entertaining and amazingly accessible. Chances are, they’re hovering over your backyard as you read this.

The National Weather Service says a cloudy day occurs when at least three-fourths of the sky is covered by clouds between sunrise and sunset. That said, Spokane experiences an average of 23.1 cloudy days in December and 22.8 days in January, according to 47 years of cloud-cover data analyzed by the Office of the Washington State Climatologist. By comparison, August averages just 5.8 days.

Think of a cloud-filled sky as being like an ocean overhead, only made of suspended water droplets and ice crystals instead of liquid water. Although clouds may appear omnipresent across the sky and their formations similar, no two are the same, just as the snowflakes they produce.

From puff balls and billowing arches to wisps and swirls, it’s hard to imagine the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Monet and Georgia O’Keeffe void of clouds.

There are 10 types of clouds, each with numerous varieties. As we enter the cloudiest time of year, we hope you’ll look up to see these shape-shifting wonders in a more positive light:

Cirrocumulus: These thin, white wispy cloudlets form high in the air, often in long, straight rows or in curved lines, depending on the wind. Shaped like delicate fish scales, popcorn or small grains across segments of the sky, they often indicate the weather is fair and cold.

Cirrostratus: Another high-level cloud, these appear as a thin, continuous veil across much or all of the sky. Because they’re translucent, the sun is visible, which is why the cloud is nicknamed “milky sunshine.” Cirrostratus sometimes produces a halo of whitish light around the sun or moon.

Another optical phenomenon the cloud is known for is a sundog, when a patch of rainbowlike colors appears just to the left or right of the sun or on both sides. Halos and sundogs form when sunlight refracts off the cloud’s ice crystals, according to the National Weather Service.

Altostratus: As cirrostratus clouds thicken, their heavier mass pulls them down to midlevel altitude where they become altostratus clouds, composed of ice crystals and water droplets. Darker and more dense than cirrostratus, the sun may be barely visible through them. Altostratus clouds can also signal an advancing frontal system.

Nimbostratus: These dark gray, midlevel clouds are thick and extensively span the sky. Capable of producing steady rain or snow, they can appear drab or downright gloomy. Not the kind of cloud you’d want for an outdoor wedding or picnic but perfect for the ski slopes or crop fields in need of precipitation.

Stratus: This is a thin, low-level cloud that occurs below 6,000 feet. (Compared to the upper-level cirrostratus cloud that forms above 18,000 feet.) It can cover the entire sky – known as overcast – or drape over hills and high-rise buildings, resembling fog that doesn’t reach the ground. Where fog typically forms from ground-level moisture, stratus clouds are created from moisture that’s low in the air. Air currents that form these clouds are usually light and conditions are calm. Stratus clouds are capable of producing a light mist, drizzle or snow dusting.

Need more information to see clouds anew? Try reading the best-selling “Cloudspotter’s Guide” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society – an international organization that “fights blue-sky thinking,” Pretor-Pinney writes. “Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day,” he adds.

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

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