New mexico clouds

As the sweet smell of rain filters through my windows, I’m reminded how much we Santa Feans are entranced by clouds and the moisture they bring. Visit any gallery with landscape paintings or photographs and the artists feature big skies full of seductive, sensuous clouds.

A good friend gave me a lovely little book recently: Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, published in 2011. It is written like a birder’s guidebook with pretty photographs, carefully correct but playful descriptions of cloud types, and (for those with a competitive urge) a checklist with scoring.

Variety is undulatus, but is it altocumulus or cirrocumulus?

Variety is undulatus, but is it altocumulus or cirrocumulus?

Clouds are divided into ten main types defined by their method of formation and height where they occur–which are largely recognizable by shape. Varieties of these basic ten are also listed as are “accessory clouds and supplementary features” such as the “anvil” portion on the famous western “anvil clouds”, or flat-topped cumulonimbus. We’ve been seeing plenty of those lately!

In June, we had lots of virga : rainclouds which precipitate but because of low humidity below, the rain fails to reach the ground. We frequently have lenticularis of varying types: they look for all the world like UFO-shaped (or lentil-shaped) clouds. And an unfortunate number of pyrocumulous: yes, clouds of the big storm-cloud shape but it arises as a result of a wildfire. Phenomena such as rainbows, glories and sundogs all appear on the book’s pages, too.

Altocumulous lenticularis or "UFO clouds"

Altocumulous lenticularis or “UFO clouds”

“Cloud collecting” or cloudspotting seems to have become a fascination for many people as the book, originally published in the UK, now appears in an American edition as well as in French and Japanese. There are blogs and websites where people share their clouds. I suspect that for the majority of folks in the urban/suburban world gazing at clouds may be easier than getting out into the more natural areas where more traditional birding happens. And perhaps it also takes us back to our childhoods when we searched for the shapes of bunnies or dragons in summer clouds.

Regardless of the reason, it does seem to be a wonderful way to reconnect with more natural events. When was the last time you stared at the clouds?

For more on cloud collecting :
And a great Washington Post article on Pretor-Pinney’s adventure :

About Outspire

The natural outdoor world is exciting, restorative, and infinitely fascinating. More people should spend time there!
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