Altocumulus Clouds: Definition & Facts

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  • 0:02 What is an Altocumulus Cloud
  • 1:18 Weather Associated…
  • 2:47 Is it a UFO or an…
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

Learn about altocumulus clouds, a type of mid-level cloud that is often associated with changing weather conditions. They typically form due to the convection found in unstable air masses located along frontal boundaries.

What is an Altocumulus Cloud?

Most elementary school students know what a cumulus cloud is; the puffy, white cotton ball cloud that is drawn in the sky of many elementary school pictures. The most well-known are the fair-weather cumulus clouds, indicating little to no change in the prevailing weather conditions. That is, until a front passes through, bringing with it convection and rising air masses, causing the fair-weather cumulus to grow vertically into large, dark thunderstorm clouds known as cumulonimbus.

But what about altocumulus clouds? They aren't big and scary like the cumulonimbus, nor are they puffy and tranquil like average cumulus clouds. Instead, altocumulus clouds are a mid-level cloud (altocumulus in Latin meaning middle heap), residing between 2,000 and 6,000 meters above the ground, with each individual cloud fragment being smaller than your average puffy cumulus cloud. They are often associated with changing weather, although not as dramatically so as the cumulonimbus.

Overall, altocumulus clouds act as an indicator for changing weather conditions and also have the dubious distinction of sometimes being mistaken for alien spacecraft.

Weather Associated with Altocumulus Clouds

Altocumulus clouds help to indicate convection, or rising heat, in the atmosphere. As warm air rises into the atmosphere, it cools and condenses water droplets in the area, which in turn form the cloud structures that we view from Earth's surface. The darker the cloud, the more water contained within it, and the greater the chances that some form of precipitation will fall from that cloud in the near future. Altocumulus clouds are usually white or grey, indicating lesser amounts of potential precipitation than what might be contained within the larger, dark cumulonimbus clouds.

Many cumulonimbus clouds actually begin as altocumulus. As the sun warms the Earth's surface over the course of the day, it further drives the convective processes and causes the clouds to rise higher in altitude. And unlike fair-weather cumulus, which features separate and distinct cotton ball-like clouds, altocumulus often occur as large rolls or sheets across the sky caused by nearby warm and cold fronts interacting. Because altocumulus clouds are very distinctive looking, and are known to be associated with potential rain and thunderstorm formation, they are considered to be one of three main types of warning clouds. Along with vertically developed cumulus and cumulonimbus, these clouds help the aviation industry perform its flight forecasting.

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