While walking my dogs at sunrise this morning, I could not help but marvel at the wisps of cirrus clouds hovering around the horizon. As the sun rose, they changed colors from dark gray, to white, to pink, to yellow, to violet; finally resting on their lacy white daytime color.
Clouds are gifted at enhancing mother nature, especially at dawn and dusk when they scatter and refract the sun’s rays to bring us a rainbow of hues. I remember watching a sunset at the St. Michaels harbor where a matrix of small stratus and cirrus clouds changed colors as the sun’s rays bent over the horizon. Their hues changed from pink to orange to yellow while showcased against an aqua sky and red sun slipping down the horizon. It took my breath away.
Clouds do that. Their water vapors and ice crystals serve as a prism to bring us all the colors in the spectrum.
Clouds are also shapeshifters. They coalesce to form fanciful shapes, allowing us to imagine figures and faces. When I was young, it made sense to me that God would be sitting high on one of these pillows, his arm outstretched for me to join him. I marveled at these puffy cumulous clouds; plumped up pillows just waiting for me to bounce on.
But clouds are also illusionists. Only later did I discover that these fluffy billowy shapes were merely a deception, created by water vapor, rain droplets, and condensation.
Clouds can also be scary. Those angel-soft pillows of fluffy, huggable shapes can quickly become menacing black and gray shrouds. Gathering, combining, darkening, turning a bright blue sky into an ominous darkness, cloaked in uncertainty.
Then, this menacing darkness brings a sacred gift, water.
Cumulus clouds are not the only low lying clouds. Stratus clouds are actually the lowest. They can descend to the earth in the form of mist or fog. Stratus clouds can be layered, especially in winter, appearing as a drab, gray gauze transforming our powerful sun into a feeble white ball. They can persist for weeks or months, leaving a melancholia hovering over a gray landscape.
Then we have our high clouds and while there are three basic types of high clouds, the ones we know best are cirrus clouds. Until the modern age, cirrus clouds were created naturally, but today, contrails produced by jet exhaust are forming into cirrus clouds
But clouds hold a secret. They are unpredictable. Their behavior even eludes scientists. Clouds are known to be a major factor on the Earth’s climate system, especially over the oceans. And, as we grapple with climate change, different types of clouds may be more helpful than others.
While clouds remain the biggest mystery in their impact on climate, there are two things that scientists know. Frostier high clouds are too thin to reflect much sunlight away from the earth, but their ice crystals do trap heat rising from the earth’s surface at night, adding to the problem of global warming. And this is particularly problematic with contrail-formed clouds. A 2011 study suggests that the net effect of contrail clouds contributes more to atmospheric warming than all the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by planes since the dawn of aviation.
How will global warming affect clouds and vice versa? Scientists are not sure, but they are worried. Clouds are considered the thermostat that sets Earth’s temperature.
Some models predict that a warming earth will cause low clouds to dissipate, enabling more solar energy to strike the planet and thus increasing the temperature at a faster rate.
However, their impact remains an unknown variable in the equation because cloud dynamics are both complex and localized. Recent concern about the accuracy of scientific models is directed at those all-important blankets of low clouds hovering over our oceans. These stratus and cumulus clouds shade about 20% of the oceans, reflecting up to 60% of the solar radiation, thereby cutting the amount of energy that reaches the Earth’s surface by as much as 7%.
But these low clouds also have drawbacks. While they shade the planet during the day, at night they act as insulating blankets. High clouds, on the other hand, are heat traps, reflecting little away from the earth, while trapping the heat at night. If scientists had a safe way to make low clouds thicker (thus, more reflective), it could reduce the rate of global warming.
But, back to the gorgeous gauzy flows.
Beyond the common clouds that we see, there are also rare clouds. Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds are high clouds that look like waves, mimicking famous Japanese prints. Lenticular clouds resemble flying saucers.
But the rarest cloud of them all is also the highest cloud, the noctilucent cloud, at the very edge of space. These clouds appear on the horizon at dusk in the northernmost latitudes from June through August, and glow like electric blue spider webs across the dark sky. For those who are awed by nature, this video captured by a Scottish astronomer shows noctilucent clouds against the background of an aurora borealis. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/video/2013/aug/23/northern-lights-timelapse-caithness-scotland-video
When I think about the nebulous nature of clouds, their unpredictability, and their beauty, I am reminded of the lyrics from the Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now.
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.