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Cloud Watching

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Called "the greatest free show above the Earth," the practice of cloud watching dates back to prehistoric times. And it will likely continue for centuries to come. While we all have different reasons for gazing at the clouds above us, we've probably all looked at least once.

Cloud watching can also be an important element in outdoor survival. That's because changing cloud formations can herald changes in the weather. Learning what the clouds are forecasting can be a valuable tool.

It would be virtually impossible to say how many people are regular cloud watchers. But according to Alan Stanley, the designer of a Web site on the pastime, it's safe to say that almost all of us have done it at least once in our lives.

And according to Stanley, people are still enjoying the show.

"The feedback I receive from the site is all very encouraging," he says. "People are amazed at some of the pictures in the sky."

Keith Heidorn is a meteorologist. He says that if visits to his Web site are any indication, there are a lot of people interested in the skies above.

"My Web site -- The Weather Doctor -- which promotes weather watching, a more encompassing variation on the theme, has over 1,000 visitors per month and many, I believe, are weather watchers," he notes. "And it is just one of many Web sites available."

Cloud watching is an activity that knows no age restrictions. Anyone from youngsters to seniors can find relaxation gazing at the ever-changing shapes above them.

Getting Started

It is also one of the easiest pastimes to get started in. Andrew Gray is the operations manager of a radio astrophysical observatory. He watches the skies for a living. But he also does it for pleasure as a cloud watcher.

"There is nothing better for a first-time cloud watcher to do than to just go out and look," he says.

"All you need is a pair of eyes and the time to spend doing it. All seasons and all times of day -- even at night sometimes -- are good for seeing interesting things. Having looked, being able to pick up a book and find out what it is that you were looking at is the next step."

Stanley notes that different weather patterns produce different types of clouds, and different cloud watching circumstances.

"Cumulus cloud systems are the best for shapes with a slight wind blowing the clouds from behind you," says Stanley.

"Other cloud systems such as lensicular or lens-shaped clouds look like flying saucers. Cirrus clouds look like birds' wings and so on."

Stanley adds that if there are hills or mountains nearby, clouds tend to form and rise, changing shape with the changing air pressure.

Clouds fall into four distinct categories: cirrus, cumulus, stratus and nimbus. The clouds we see overhead are one of these, or a combination of two or more types.

Heidorn also notes that unsettled weather often produces spectacular shows in the sky.

"I have always loved the unstable weather of warm summer days which culminate in thunderstorms most of all, but partly cloudy skies at sunrise and sunset come a close second," he says. "For longer viewing times, the approach of a front can also be quite entertaining."

Cloud watching doesn't necessarily have to end when the skies are a clear blue. Gray notes there are still plenty of things to look for in the sky.

"You might think that cloudless blue skies are not the most interesting for cloud watching, but it is actually solid overcast that is frequently more boring," he explains.

"Even if there are no clouds at all, other things do go on in the sky that can make interesting viewing. For example, the refraction and reflection of light from ice crystals in the atmosphere can cause various faint arcs or rings of light to appear in the sky.

"It is not an everyday event, nor is it particularly rare to see, for example, a rainbow-like ring around the sun, particularly in cooler weather."

Heidorn admits that the physical act of cloud watching itself is about as low impact as you can get. But he adds that cloud watching can be combined with other activities to give you more of a workout.

"If you add cloud watching to hiking, walking or even jogging [or other similar physical activities], there can be physical benefits as well. I currently often walk to the summit of a hill near home to get a better view of the sky," says Heidorn.

"But in our fast-paced world, taking time for -- as the Zen saying tells us -- sitting quietly, doing nothing can have many benefits, physical and mental."

As Mary Bartnikowski explains in her article How to Cloud Watch, the best way to cloud watch is by lying on your back on the grass and gazing upwards.

Get comfortable and then just relax and watch the clouds float by. She adds that if you get the feeling you are wasting your time, remember that our best ideas can come to us while we are taking a break from our everyday tasks.

Many people watch the skies, not only for pleasure, but also for a living. Cloud watching can play a role in many careers, including those of meteorologists, sailors and teachers.


National Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Weather,
by  David M. Ludlum
Light and Color in the Outdoors,
by  M.G.J. Minnaert
The Weather Wizard's Cloud Book: How You Can Forecast the Weather Accurately and Easily by Reading the Clouds,
by  Louis D., Sr. Rubin, et al
The Weather Handbook,
by  Alan Watts


National Sky Awareness Week
Learn more about the wonders above us

For Spacious Skies Foundation
A program to make kids aware of the sky

Includes a list of 10 reasons to look up

Cloud Gazing
Learn about art in the sky

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