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A Guide to Cloud Gazing

As the winter melts into summer and the overcast skies start to dot with blue, students flock outside to catch a breath of fresh air before returning to the depths of their studies. If you happen to find yourself amongst these students, don’t forget to look up and pay particularly close attention to the floating puffs of white that shade the Earth. 

Historically used in divination, religion, and art of all kinds, clouds have been gazed upon since the origin of human life. 

Clouds can be interpreted creatively: it is a process called pareidolia, where one conjures up patterns and familiar shapes in their environment. I’m sure most of us have spotted a cloud and thought how similar it looks to a heart, a face, or a car. Others choose to let their mind rest whilst gazing. I, on the other hand, prefer to treat cloud gazing like a scavenger hunt and spot as many different types as I can. 

Image: Unsplash.

A cloud's life begins in the ocean, where the water cycle a process describing the movement of water above and below the earth  supplies the seas with constant water. To ensure this supply never runs out, the sun’s solar radiation heats the oceans and allows water vapour to form. This vapour then rises into the atmosphere, where it cools, condenses, and forms clouds.

In St Andrews, we are all familiar with the next step, rain. Yet we mustn’t be too quick to judge clouds. Studies have shown that cloud gazing, however, you prefer, provides a calming effect that so many students need as we enter exam times. We also see a boost in creativity and focus with increased cloud gazing, so if you feel stuck on a question this semester, take a moment outside to look up and it may start to make sense. 

There are 10 main genera of clouds which have been studied, all of which have been divided into three levels: low, medium, and high clouds, based on their position in the atmosphere. Low-hanging clouds - 2,000 metres and below - encompass familiar names like stratocumulus. This cloud varies in colour, from bright white to dark grey, and is quite possibly the most common cloud you’ll see. They are characterised by their long, rounded patches of cloud presented in lines or waves. These clouds don’t often precipitate and so are safe to watch  but maybe from afar as they can indicate worse weather to come.

Medium-levelled clouds at 2,000 to 6,100 metres include the likes of nimbostratus — a low-lying cloud dark in colour that often blocks out the sun and produces long periods of rain or snow. You won’t have to travel far to see this familiar giant in St Andrews.

Cirrocumulus, a high cloud at 6,100 metres or higher, is made up of many small white clouds called cloudlets, which group together. Additionally, you are very lucky if you see the wisps of a cirrus cloud: the feathery-like appearance made entirely from ice crystals can be a whimsical lift after a stressful day. My particular favourite is the nacreous cloud found some 21,000 to 30,000 metres in the stratosphere. These clouds could enter even the staunchest of blue-sky lovers, with their discs of vivid colours reflected from the setting and rising sun in the poles. If there ever was a cloud-gazer, it would have to be Santa Claus.

With clouds however, does come rain and despite how inviting they may seem, always wear a hood, maybe a hot drink, alongside your guide to cloud gazing.

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