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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: The cloud of springtime has returned, and these ones don’t portend gloom

Cumulus clouds floating over the Pullman area on Tuesday. These puffy, low-level clouds are making a comeback to the Inland Northwest now that it’s March.  (Linda Weiford)
Cumulus clouds floating over the Pullman area on Tuesday. These puffy, low-level clouds are making a comeback to the Inland Northwest now that it’s March. (Linda Weiford)
By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

Hello, cumulus. It’s good to have you back. As the Beatles’ song goes, “Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.”

If any cloud type is associated with springtime, it’s cumulus. Now that it’s March, they’re appearing more frequently over the Inland Northwest, such as Tuesday and Wednesday . On mostly sunny days, it’s easy to spot the white, puffy clouds that resemble floating cotton balls or popcorn.

Occasionally, they take on shapes of objects such as sheep, turtles and human faces.

These low-altitude clouds form between 2,000 to 7,000 feet in the sky, and we typically see a lot of them in March and April as the warming sun gets higher in the sky. During this time, the sun’s rays heat the ground. As the heated air rises into the atmosphere, the updraft accumulates water vapor. This ascending parcel of warm, moist air ultimately cools and condenses into liquid droplets that form a cumulus cloud.

This process, known as convection, is less likely to occur during winter because the sun isn’t warm enough to heat the air near the ground to produce an updraft.

Now that the sun is getting higher in the sky and generating more warmth, expect to see more of these whimsical clouds that add character to our blue skies.

Cumulus clouds usually don’t produce precipitation and often signify fair-weather conditions. The closer we get to summer, however, the greater the possibility that these innocuous clouds will grow in height and size to become cumulonimbus clouds, also known as thunderheads.

A happy version of the cloud is cumulus fractus, formed when a cumulus cloud breaks into fragments as if torn or shredded. This often occurs as the cloud is sheared by winds or it begins to dissipate when night approaches and the air cools.

You’re most likely to see a few cumulus clouds in midmorning and more in the afternoon as the warming sun generates more surface heat to create updrafts.

This is an ideal time of year to look up from time to time – to get your head in the clouds, so to speak. First off, they don’t all spell gloom. Cumulus, for example, appears smack in the middle of blue. Clouds are also similar to snowflakes in that each one is unique and fleeting.

Quoting the Cloud Appreciation Society, a global online network of citizen cloud observers, on its website: “We believe clouds are the most dynamic, evocative & poetic aspect of nature.”

Springtime is an ideal time to gaze upward and see what they mean.

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

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