Sky Watchers Guide To Cloud Identification

Clouds themselves will give you clues to their identity: in their shape, in their height, and in the kind of precipitation they produce. If you can answer the questions below for each type of cloud you see, you can use the chart to help identify the cloud type. Refer to the pictures inside to confirm your identification.

  1. Is the bottom of the cloud in the low, middle, or high range?
  2. Is it a flat, smooth layer or is it broken into smaller pieces?
  3. Do the clouds have lumpy tops or do they extend high into the atmosphere?
  4. Is the cloud producing any precipitation?
Cloud Identification Chart
Cloud Range Rolled appearance or regularly arranged piecesSmooth layerOther characteristics or structure
Low clouds
(near surface to 2 km)
Stratocumulus
Rolls with or without spaces between
Weak precipitation, if any

Stratus
Fog-like appearance close to the ground
May produce drizzle or very fine snow

Nimbostratus
Thick dark appearance
May produce drizzle or very fine snow
Gives steady all-day rain or snow

 
Middle clouds
(2 - 6 km)
Altocumulus
Rolls with or without spaces between
Seldom any precipitation
Altostratus
Sun may be visible but no halo present
May produce steady precipitation as it thickens
Altocumulus Lenticularis
Smooth disc-shaped clouds downwind of mountains or hills
No precipitation
High clouds
(6 - 12 km)
Cirrocumulus
Rippled appearance
No precipitation
Cirrostratus
Thin veil produces a halo around the sun
No precipitation
Cirrus
Wispy
No precipitation
Convective clouds
(450 m to 3 km)
  Cumulus
Individual puffs with flat bases and irregular tops
Brief, light showers or flurries
Towering Cumulus
Significant vertical extent well-defined scalloped tops
Dark bases and high tops anvil shaped top may be visible
Brief, light showers or flurries
Cumulonimbus
Produces showers, sometimes heavy
Produces heavy showers, thunderstorms, and sometimes hail

Stratus

Stratus clouds over a lake

Cloud type: Low cloud | Height of bases: near surface to 450 m

This thin layer is normally smooth and almost featureless, but stratus can also appear in ragged patches or shreds, especially underneath other precipitation-producing clouds. Stratus is often low enough to obscure the tops of hills or tall buildings.

Tip...Sometimes, morning fog will lift and become a stratus layer.

Stratus clouds over a lakeStratus clouds above a snowy field

Stratocumulus

Stratocumulus clouds over a rocky shoreline

Cloud type: Low cloud | Height of bases: near surface to 2 km

Sometimes stratocumulus appears as a continuous sheet of parallel rolls, and at other times blue sky can be seen between the rolls. It can appear ominously dark if the layer is thick enough or if other cloud layers are present above it.

Tip... The cloud elements in stratocumulus appear larger because they're closer to the ground than altocumulus.

Dark-coloured stratocumulus clouds over rolling hills Patchy stratocumulus clouds over open water

Nimbostratus

Nimbostratus clouds over a darkened forest

Cloud type: Low cloud | Height of bases: near surface to 2 km

This dense grey cloud layer usually covers the entire sky and is thick enough to block out the sun completely. The bottom of the cloud often looks fuzzy, particularly when it's producing precipitation.

Tip...Nimbostratus is usually darker in colour than altostratus and its thickness makes for a gloomy day.

Nimbostratus clouds over a forestNimbostratus clouds over a green field

Altocumulus

Rolls of altocumulus clouds

Cloud type: Middle cloud | Height of bases: 2 - 6 km

Altocumulus can have small lacy segments or almost continuous rolls similar to stratocumulus except higher. Hills or mountains may produce rolling wave-like winds aloft to smooth these clouds into the shape of a lens.

Tip...The defining difference between altocumulus and stratocumulus is the height of their bases above ground.

Patches of altocumulus cloudsPatches of altocumulus clouds

Altostratus

Altostratus clouds thin enough to let the sun shine through

Cloud type: Middle cloud | Height of bases: 2 - 6 km

This grey or blue sheet may be thin enough to allow the sun or moon to be dimly visible but is thick enough to prevent objects on the ground from casting a shadow. Altostratus will not produce a halo around the sun or moon.

Tip...Be careful with this one . . . the sun is sometimes visible through thin spots in other types of cloud as well.

Altostratus clouds above a forestAltostratus clouds thin enough to let the sun shine through

Cirrus

Cirrus clouds above a forest of fall colours

Cloud type: High cloud | Height of bases: 6 - 12 km

Often seen on good-weather days, this ice crystal cloud can appear as wispy streaks resembling mares' tails, as dense opaque patches, or as long narrow bands.

Tip...The sun refracting or reflecting through the ice crystals can produce bright spots, often brightly coloured, in cirrus cloud.

Cirrus clouds against a blue skyCirrus clouds above snowy ground

Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus clouds forming a band in the sky

Cloud type: High cloud | Height of bases: 6 - 12 km

These clouds can occur in extensive sheets, resembling the ripples that waves leave in the sand. Cirrocumulus is never opaque enough to completely hide the sun or moon.

Tip...Cirrocumulus can resemble altocumulus, but the cloud elements appear noticeably smaller because they're higher.

A large sheet of cirrocumulus cloudsCirrocumulus clouds at sunset

Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus clouds forming a halo around a setting sun

Cloud type: High cloud | Height of bases: 6 - 12 km

This thin veil of ice crystals commonly occurs in sheets that cover the sky, allowing enough light through to produce weak shadows from objects on the ground.

Tip...It's the only cloud that will produce a full halo around the sun or moon.

Cirrostratus clouds forming a halo around the sunA thin sheet of cirrostratus clouds

Cumulus

A large number of cumulus clouds above a farm

Cloud type: Convective cloud | Height of bases: 450 m to 3 km

These individual white puffs generally have flat bottoms and little vertical extent. On a typical summer day, so many cumulus clouds may form that they crowd together, resembling a layer of stratocumulus. Cumulus often appear with other cloud types.

Tip...Cumulus clouds are usually wider than they are tall.

A large number of cumulus clouds above a farmA few cumulus clouds above a family in a canoe on a lake

Towering Cumulus

A large towering cumulus cloud above a lake, bright orange at the top because of the setting sun

Cloud type: Convective cloud | Height of bases: 450 m to 3 km

This bulging, cauliflower-topped cloud develops from smaller cumulus clouds when the air is unstable. All three stages of this cloud (cumulus, towering cumulus, and cumulonimbus) may be present at the same time.

Tip...Towering cumulus clouds are normally taller than they are wide, with a well-defined top.

A towering cumulus cloud with a well-defined topA towering cumulus cloud with a well-defined top

Cumulonimbus

A cumulonimbus cloud in the distance with an anvil

Cloud type: Convective cloud | Height of bases: 450 m to 3 km

From the bottom, the base of this cloud appears very dark and may have rain shafts extending from it. When seen in profile from a distance, a cumulonimbus cloud has a flattened fibrous top shaped like an anvil. It has the greatest vertical extent of any cloud type.

Tip...Cumulonimbus is the only cloud to produce lightning and thunder.

A cumulonimbus cloud in the distance with an anvil and towering cumulus in front of itA cumulonimbus cloud at sunset

Stratocumulus and Cirrus

Stratocumulus clouds with cirrus clouds high above

Nature doesn't always cooperate by displaying clouds one type at a time. In this picture, a band of stratocumulus is visible well below the highlevel cirrus.

Altocumulus + Stratocumulus

Stratocumulus clouds near the horizon with altocumulus clouds above

In this picture, the predominant cloud type is altocumulus. In some spots, the sky is visible between cloud elements but in others, the cloud forms a solid layer. Stratocumulus can be seen stretching along the horizon below the altocumulus layer.

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Cirrus + Cumulus

A large number of cumulus clouds above a lake, with sheets of cirrus and a jet aircraft contrail high above
© Environment Canada
Photo: Phil Chadwick

In this photo, dense patches of cirrus are visible high above thetufts of fair-weather cumulus. Between the two layers, a condensation trail (contrail) can be seen, marking the earlier path of a jet aircraft..

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