Introduction: Predicting the Weather With Clouds

Picture of Predicting the Weather With Clouds

Being able to predict the weather by observing cloud formations is a skill that is somewhat lost on us modern humans. Most of us can easily look at a cloud and see the unicorn or ice cream cones, but very few of us can look at clouds and see the approaching cold front.

Fortunately, being able to predict the weather is easier than one may think. Follows is some helpful information to get you started. It will no doubt wow, impress and keep you dry on your next family outting into the great outdoors.

Step 1: Categorization

Picture of Categorization

Clouds can easily be broken into four categories. These categories are high clouds, middle clouds, low clouds and clouds with vertical growth.

Clouds are also identified by shape. Cumulus refers to a "heap" of clouds. Stratus refers to clouds that are long and streaky. And nimbus refers to the shape of "rain" because we all know what rain looks like.

Step 2: High Clouds

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High clouds form at 16,000 - 43,000 feet. Basically, these are the clouds that you only encounter on the top of really high mountains or at the cruising altitude of a jet airplane. Due to the extreme conditions at which they form, they tend to be comprised primarily of ice crystals.

High clouds do not block sunlight.

High clouds include:

Step 3: Cirrus

Picture of Cirrus

Cirrus clouds are white wispy clouds that stretch across the sky. By all accounts, cirrus clouds indicate fair weather in the immediate future. However, they can also be an indication of a change in weather patterns within the next 24 hours (most likely a change of pressure fronts).

By watching their movement and the direction in which the streaks are pointed, you can get a sense of which direction the weather front is moving.

Step 4: Cirrostratus

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Cirrostratus tend to be sheet-like and cover the whole sky. You can usually tend to see the sun or moon through them. Their pressence usually indicates moist weather within the next 12 - 24 hours.

Step 5: Cirrocumulus

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Cirrocumulus clouds tend to be large groupings of white streaks that are sometimes seemingly neatly aligned. In most climates these mean fair weather for the near future.

However, in the tropics, these clouds may indicate an approaching tropical storm or hurricane (depending on the season).

Step 6: Middle Clouds

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Middle clouds form at 6,500 to 23,000 feet. They are comprised of water, and, if cold enough, ice.

Middle clouds often block sunlight, but not always.

Middle clouds consist of:

Step 7: Altostratus

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Altostratus are grey and/or blue clouds that cover the whole sky. They tend to indicate a storm some time in the very near future since they usually precede inclimate weather.

Step 8: Altocumulus

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Altocumulus are grayish-white clouds blanketing the entire sky. The tend to look like large fluffy sheets in which there is a lot of contrast between light and dark. Sun does not pass through them. If you see them in the morning, prepare for a thunderstorm in the afternoon.

Step 9: Low Clouds

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Low clouds form below 6,500 feet. These clouds are the ones that like to hang-around just above tall buildings. These clouds tend to contain water, but can also be comprised of snow if the weather gets cold enough.

Low clouds block sunlight and can bring precipitation and wind.

Low clouds include:

Step 10: Stratus

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Stratus are low-lying solid clouds that are often formed when fog lifts off the ground. They obviously look like an elevated fog. Often they bring drizzle or light snow.

Step 11: Stratocumulus

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Stratocumulus are low-lying bumpy and grey clouds. They do not bring precipitation. They also do not cover the entire sky and tend to come in rows and patches.

Step 12: Nimbostratus

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Nimbostratus is your standard rain cloud. It is a large flat sheet of grey cloud with a little bit of differentiation. If you see these, chances are it's raining outside.

Step 13: Clouds With Vertical Mobility

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And last, but not least, are clouds with vertical growth which tend to have a base that hangs really low (5,000 feet) and a top that climbs really high (over 50,000 feet).

Clouds in this category include:

Step 14: Cumulus

Picture of Cumulus

Cumulus clouds are your stereotypical white "cottonball" clouds. So long as the clouds remain low clumps floating across the sky, there will be fair weather. However, you need to keep an eye on these clouds because any vertical growth can indicate the start of a large storm.

Step 15: Cumulonimbus

Picture of Cumulonimbus

Cumulonimbus are cumulus clowds that have grown vertically into an anvil-like shape. The anvil tends to point in the direction the storm is moving. These clouds bring most dangerous weather such as rain, lightning, hail and tornadoes.

Step 16: That's a Lot of Information. Now What?

Picture of That's a Lot of Information. Now What?

Alright, now that we know what the basic types of clouds are, we need to look up at the sky.

Go outside and look at the sky. If there are no clouds in the the sky, then the weather is fine.

Assuming there are clouds in the sky, we now need to identify them.

First, determine if you can see the sun or moon through them. If you can, then you are looking at high altitude clouds. If the clouds are thick, then there is a chance of poor weather a day or two in the future. To determine when the storm will arrive, observe whether or not the clouds appear to be moving. If they appear stationary, it is a slow moving front and probably won't arrive for over a day. If they appear to be moving, then the change in weather will be there faster. You can tell which way the storm is traveling by the direction the clouds are pointing.

If you can not see through the clouds, chances are that you are looking at middle or low altitude clouds. First, determine which of the two you are dealing with by observing shape, color and other more obvious give-aways. Are they covering the entire sky? Then they may be middle altitude clouds. Do they appear to be grey with a blue tint or fluffy white/grey clouds with a lot of contrast between light and dark? If yes, then these are middle altitude clouds and you should prepare for rain within half a day.

If you answered no to any of those questions, then check for low-altitude clouds. These tend to appear low and often engulf mountains and buildings. If it looks like an elevated fog, expect drizzle (if it isn't already). If it is rows of low, dark, lumpy clouds, then the weather is otherwise okay, but watch for further developments. If there is a low, dark, grey sheet, then it's probably raining. If it's not, quickly go get your umbrella.

If your clouds are low, fluffy, and white like cottonballs in the sky, then the weather is okay. However, keep an eye on these for any vertical growth of the cloud upwards into the sky (turning into anvil shapes). These clouds can unexpectedly change from fair weather indicators into violent thunderstorms.


maenjordan (author)2017-11-11

thank you

Jenny-Parker-Stocks (author)2017-07-09

Thanks for this :-) I knew a little about clouds from a forest ranger but that was great-I'm hoping for a storm here in the UK as it's so humid and have been watching the clouds but now I am even more savy!! Thank you :-)

8579325 (author)2016-11-26

verry helpfull !

The Phantom Chemist (author)2016-10-19

If you know the roots of the cloud names (e.g. nimbus=rain, cumulo=to heap), they're easier to remember.

Fun article!

changes2012 (author)2016-02-25

thank you ... I've been looking for something like this!

pandicorn_union (author)2015-10-19

love it!!!!!!!!!!!! it helped with my science project

DebbieO2 (author)2015-06-09

shir2135 (author)2015-03-21

I'm very curious realm of clouds and weather forecasting. I wanted to ask a few things I dont understand :1) when predicting cloudiness,you predict acording to contracts by regions over the mountains or sea etc., or by the amount of space itself? I would be happy even if in addition to your answer,you will have related articles to prove this. 2) I read that there are types of clouds, not that I figured it out, but I wanted to know if the type of cloud is considered when forecasting the cloudiness of a particular location?

thanks shir :)

cirrusb2002 (author)2014-03-16

Excellent article, I've used it as a derivative to instruct cadets on predicting weather patterns in the field, in order to assist them with preparation for personal equipment to take on field training.

Tuinopo80 (author)2013-02-10

Nice! Good Preparation for hiking in the mountains!

ccerceni (author)2012-12-19

Quite resourceful and interesting. Great job dude keep up the good work.

weather2u (author)2012-08-03

Hey, I just want to say this information has helped me a lot. I am a Wando Band Student, and during our marching band season, it is important to keep an eye on the weather. I just wanted to ask a question though,

What if you see Alto Cumulus clouds in the mid-morning (around 10 or 11 AM ish)? Does it still mean a chance for rain in the afternoon? Are they actually Alto-Cumulus time? Please explain.

Thanks sooooo much for your time. I really appreciate it! :)

horselover101 (author)2012-04-25

Thanks for the information! I'm doing a science fair project on Meterology and this is a really big help!

Woodbuffalo (author)2012-03-19

put together very well, simple and understandable, Thank You. In regards to WIND that is a whole new ball game...there is a morning wind (east to west, generally cooler as the mtns draw from the low lands) From approx 2-3pm there is "dead air" (the hottest part of the day) From 3pm into late evening is the warmer winds (west to east), most times bringing wet weather.

Rishnai (author)2008-06-20

Stratocumulus also tend to mean a storm will probably happen somehwere near(ish) that day. If you see them meeting with another cloud formation, such as nimbostratus. If you see nimbostratus clouds stop in a vey distinct line, and stratocumulus meeting, crossing, or coming near that line, plan for an indoor day with the possibility of severe weather directly to your north, south, or above you that day. In some cases, you will be able to watch a potentially severe stack go up over or just to the east of you, in which case someone about 100-250 miles to the east of you is about to have a bad day. At least that's what happens here, on the very western edge of tornado country. Many days, I can look up at the sky and predict (not well enough to become a pro stormchaser, unfortunately) whether severe weather will happen, and predict where it will be, such as "That sucker's going to do something nasty (tornado or bad hail) over at about I-76 and the state line." Or "From the looks of that, Peyton/Calhan is in danger today. We oughta call Sue and Bud, make sure they're alright in about four hours." For a while I could get people to bet me on that, then we'd sit around watching the weather radar and let the money change hands.

static (author)Rishnai2008-06-20

Actually the pros don't observe clouds in making their morning decision as to where they will go that day. They can't because there destination may be a State away, when they start the chase. Of course they use cloud observations to fine tune the chase if their morning prediction was accurate. Sometimes they are good or lucky, perhaps both. I recall a Sunday when Chasers from Oklahoma where in NW Kansas waiting when a tornado formed. The NWS even hadn't even issued a tornado watch for that day. :)

Rishnai (author)static2008-06-20

Yeah, I wish cloud-watching alone would make it possible to tell where a tornado might be, in time to get near there. If it was possible to predict clouds well enough by eye to go pro, I'd want to develop that skill. But as it is, I have to wait for a cell to start, and then do the judgment call: go for the north one, or the south one? Any cloud-watcher does, but if I wanted to see a twister, I'd be in the wrong spot to get near it in time. I like it that way. It's just that all the severe weather rolls off of the front range, so if something is going to hit the west 1/4 of Kanses/Nebraska, or any part of CO, I get to watch it form before it goes off somewhere past the horizon to forcibly remodel someone's home.

vincent7520 (author)Rishnai2011-12-30

However I must add to my previous reply that your remarks confirm what I want to say :
1) your "expertise" in forecasting is local and is based on multiple factors starting with a good knowledge of local factors that was built over the years ;
2) TV weather forecast and other pro weathermen are on th whole very reliable, albeit some rare mistakes of course.

Actually your remark are very useful as you give practical examples to what I say on a more general level.

Thank you & Happy New Year to you an all your relatives (I know this is important in your country).

vincent7520 (author)Rishnai2011-12-30

@ static and rishnal :
I didn't feel that Randolfo wants to use his cloud reading for tornado forecast…
I think he writes on a more general level.
As for myself, although I feel I have a proper overall notion of weather forecasting, as I live in a land were tornadoes do not exist (God forbids !…) in no way would I allow myself to forecast a tornado in one of your states.
This would be totally preposterous and ridiculous !!!…

MaXoR (author)static2010-04-19

You watched storm chasers too?!?! lol

killerAP (author)static2008-06-22

bs man. The weather men ALWAYS just take a look at the clouds in order to predict the weather. One time here in NJ they said it would be clear for a while, and then thirty minutes later we got hail.

Rishnai (author)killerAP2008-06-22

I guess the point that we are both trying to make is that you can predict if the location you are at is about to get something, (unless you're a TV weatherman) but you can't just look at the clouds and know precisely what county a state and a half away is going to get a tornado. At least not in time to get there before the storms fire up and drop the tornado that you want to film. Storm chasers pick where they're going that day at or before ten in the morning, so that they can be there when the storm happens at three in the afternoon. People who like to watch clouds (and local weathercasters), on the other hand, can theoretically look at the sky at ten and tell what weather that spot is going to get at three. Except the weathercasters. I think they snort a line and flip a coin sometimes.

dmwarheit (author)Rishnai2009-07-14

Nimbostratus clouds are more associated with occluded fronts and long duration constant rainfall that severe weather. If you are seeing low lying thick dark clouds that have a swirl appearance to them you are probably looking at the base of a meso-cyclone. Basically they are a conglomerate of thunderstorms with enough energy to create it’s own counter clockwise rotation. While stratocumulus can be associated with inclement weather, they are more often caused simply by a mid level, 5-10k, temperature inversion that blocks the cumulus' vertical movement. When the cumulus can no longer going up they start to spread into stratocumulus. Hope this helped. :o)

gordokury (author)2008-06-26

what do you predict when you see a chemtrail?

randofo (author)gordokury2008-06-30


gordokury (author)randofo2008-07-03

hahaha, ok, but, remember, the worst think about paranoids is that they are right

vincent7520 (author)gordokury2011-12-30

Nope … Paranoia is overinterpretation.
It a sickness that makes a conglomerates of various facts and draw the wrong conclusion …

Okay, that's not the subject here … 

Zinky (author)gordokury2008-07-03

CHemtrails often indicate strong reptilian influence, many long /straight/ looking lines and 90 degree angles, indicates strong reptilian influence, heavy pollution and or mind/behavior control. 60 degree angles are much nicer :-) -ps i know the earth is round and that straight lines and angles work a little differently then on a flat earth.

emartian (author)2008-12-04

Fantastic 'struct! I especially appreciate the quality of the photos; the three people reading over my shoulder were all nodding silently in agreement. Any idea where we could reliably see lenticular formations?

vincent7520 (author)emartian2011-12-30

I saw one on the Mont Ventoux (1 000m) not latter than dec. 16.
This is in the South of France.
Just luck I suppose … 

randofo (author)emartian2008-12-04

I left them out because they were more of an anomaly or special case.

The wikipedia page seems pretty reasonable though:

vincent7520 (author)2011-12-30

Nice instructable … 
but I'm not sure it is very practical as it seems too general to me : practically you have to take into account local patterns to really make the clouds "talk" and predict weather : the sea, coast line, mountain formation, plain and type of plants or trees plus local idiosyncrasies may change considerably the general pattern you give here.
Your description of clouds is 100% correct of course but in order to have a valuable prediction type of clouds must be crossed with other informations :
- locally, air pressure with rate of rise or fall, wind speed and direction at ground level (which is somewhat easy) and at higher altitude (as you say) which can only be a guess, temperature rise or fall …
- if possible) regionally or on 1/2 a continent scale (let's say Eastern US or Western Europe) data from different weather stations ; ie. (for each station) air pressure, rate of barometer rise of fall, wind direction and speed, temperature with rise or fall plus type of cloud formation, type of rain if any, fog formation and dew point.
This list seems pretty stuffy, but once you're used to it you can make good valuable 24h predictions by drawing a chart of air masses, fronts and weather formation on the whole area (1/2 a continent).
We did precisely that when sailing on the western coast of Europe using the weather service from BBC's channel 4. This weather bulletin was broadcasted 6 times a day (if my memory serves me well) and we did draw a weather chart in about 5 minutes after the broadcast.
Of course with the internet on board, Navtex and all those electronic devices (which are truly invaluable in rough conditions) caring about the weather has changed dramatically : a 72 hours forecast in reliable now when a 12 hours prediction was the more we could expect in the late 50's and 60's (24 to 36 hours in the late 70's). And safety has increased and this is good … 
Conversely I feel we have lost an art of prediction which was trying to "read" all those little signs from nature to make us aware of what could happen next and gave a feeling of belonging to a universe we could have a practical understanding of.
(Same could be said about the art of navigation, dead reckoning and nautical astronomy : making a perfect fix by stars was -still is for some ?- quite exhalirating and gave a feeling of deep achievement and a feeling of being one with one's environment).
This is why your instructable is great albeit its limitations. Maybe you should add a section on how the air masses move, how warm and cold fronts form what makes the difference between a low and a high, wind direction, use of temperature rise and fall, etc …  that shape the coming weather ?… And also be somewhat more specific about where and in which season the informations you give work best ?
It is just a suggestion … 
I am also aware this becomes a general course in meteorology … and may not be the place for it !!! ;D
So please don't feel I'm trying to put down your effort.
On the contrary.
Again, thank you and Happy New Year (as this is written on 12-30 at 11pm (local time) :D :D

chazskinz (author)2010-04-19

good idea, bad information!
it is ashamed to not include chemtrails (government papers confirm this) since it is a FACT. to dismiss it as paranoia is not only ignorance of what is going on in your skies but giving people biased and uninformed information.

vincent7520 (author)chazskinz2011-12-30

Cool off, man ! … It's nearly New Year's Eve.

Moreover I do not see how chemtrails (wether tey are facts or not) can help to predict weather which is the purpose of this instructable … 

You're just knocking at the wrong door.

Be nice to you : give yourself some fresh air and read what people write instead of seeing a conspiracy where only simple useful facts are given (not all facts but useful facts).

randofo (author)chazskinz2010-04-20

I haven't dismissed anything.

I have simple explained how to predict the weather using naturally forming cloud formations. These originate from complex natural processes as they have for billions of years.

There is no bias here. Only FACT.

MaXoR (author)chazskinz2010-04-19

You know, I gotta say...... you sure come on really strong when you have to make a point.

You realize that your chemtrails(Or maybe you meant contrails?) only affected new york (most of which was noted by airport monitoring equiptment, and was largly localized to the airports because of traffic being high enough there) by 5 degrees celsius during the world trade center fiasco. (They shut down air traffic for a few days after the towers were hit)

Secondly this person was giving us examples of judging weather, using globally forming cloud patterns. Unless you live close to an airport, contrails will never get dense enough to significantly impact the local weather. If you do live close enough, well.... looks like cloudy skys with higher chances of precipitation when fronts move in.... as a constant (Fluctuating mildly with traffic density)

However, I'm sure all of us here would love to hear your forcast model using contrails?! I'm very intrigued on how this relates to world weather, and predicting weather using naturally forming clouds as a result of moving fronts

Yes, contrails do affect tempurature, however they affect airports mostly, and major airways/skyways. They also only hold moisture long enough to dissipate back into the air around it. Contrails are not the "exhaust" of the airplane persay.... it's a reaction with the tempurature difference of their exhaust and the cold air. The hot moist exhaust air is combining with the low vapor pressure cold air way up there. It's the same effect as when you breath out on a cold day. So with that in mind, us as humans exhale way more vapor than the jets do on average, and would then be the largest factor in global weather change!

You made yourself look like a fenatic, and therfor no one will ever truthfully listen to you with much regard. I know I sure didn't, but then again, I'm just one opinion... maybe others have their own!

iShouldaKnoDD (author)2011-12-29

Wonderful!!! Without being negative, one question. How do you propose to get anyone to leave their monitor & go outside to look up??
I (am aged) grew up where tornadoes are angry & as a child was repeatedly warned to "watch the clouds",,or else! (I knew what that meant) My "mentors" also taught me to note the behavior of animals & plants. as when the leaves of trees turn over or pets get nervous.
Thank you so much for you time and knowledge & trouble in posting this life saving information!!

piper1234 (author)2011-07-26

mm if you live in the tornado alley or in Florida or some wild rainy place on earth this almost forgotten info might save lives, lately people trust in the tv weather but if you look to the ancient wise knowledge of watching the sky and judge by the clouds a tragedy could be avoided, if you see cumulosnimbus you better run to hide, weather doesn't understand about satellites and tv

finfan7 (author)2011-06-25

This is an excellent resource. Living in the Southwest I see mostly dust clouds but I will definitely start watching for these.

stuilevuka (author)2011-03-26

thanks for the useful information and one that is very important to us daily

i pretty much new all this stuff but it is still good to have a refresher, and a few more facts too, i found a few flaws about the description outcomes being to precise and strict, i have had very thick dark sheets of nimbostratus and never received any rain, but though it usually does, not as i am typing this because i have those clouds it is dry, though this is not an exact science.

thingygoboom (author)2010-12-20

A great instructable. Simply wonderful.
Someone should make an app to do it for us.

randofo (author)thingygoboom2010-12-20

There are plenty of apps that will predict the weather. The whole point of this is to be able to do it yourself without an app.

sellulose (author)2010-05-11

I am unable to see this image. Please reload. Thanks.

randofo (author)sellulose2010-05-12

Works fine on all of my browsers. Try refreshing the page.

Edward L (author)2010-04-18

This instructable is great! Thanks for the great info.

msean (author)2010-04-18

Nice.  Thank you.

blugyblug (author)2008-06-20

Woww awesome instructable. IM gonna bookmark this.
what about no clouds? =DD

flamesami (author)blugyblug2009-10-30


drresearch (author)flamesami2010-04-18

Where I live:


Well, it's not really so hot in winter, but what we define cool, you might define summer. :)

About This Instructable




Bio: My name is Randy and I founded the Instructables Design Studio. I'm also the author of the books 'Simple Bots,' and '62 Projects to ... More »
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