There are three main cloud categories: vertical developing clouds, layered clouds, or light icy clouds.
Vertical developing clouds are cumulus clouds that develop as moisture at the surface rises and cools and condenses, creating fluffy fair-weather clouds. If the atmosphere is unstable and warm air from the surface continues to rise, cooling and condensing, then cloud will grow vertically taller and taller. These clouds can lead to thunderstorm development with heavy rain, lightning, and even tornadoes! Cumulus is Latin for “heap” or “pile” as the clouds form as billowing piles of white fluffy clouds.
Layered clouds are stratus clouds as they are a uniform low and often covering the entire sky. Stratus can create drizzle or mist, but usually does not bring rain. Fog is low stratus that is touching the ground. Strato is a Latin prefix meaning “layer”.
Light and icy clouds are called cirrus clouds that develop in the highest levels of the atmosphere where it is so cold only ice can form, it is also very windy up there too! So these clouds made of light fibrous ice crystals, get blown around and create wispy thin clouds. Precipitation from these clouds does not reach the ground, but ice can fall from them which create fall streaks or virga. Cirrus is Latin for “curl of hair” and another name for these clouds is Mare’s tails.
Cloud names are derived from these three categories based on their characteristics and height in the atmosphere.
We pair more Latin words together to get more specific on describing clouds. For example, alto (Latin for “high”) can describe various types of clouds like an altocumulus or an altostratus. Nimbus (Latin for “rain”) is a description of if rain accompanies the cloud – such as nimbostratus or cumulonimbus. Check out the image above to learn more about what latin words combine to describe different cloud types. Cirrostratus? A high level icy layered cloud!