Cirrus Clouds: Definition, Types & Facts

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  • 0:00 Introduction to Cirrus Clouds
  • 0:40 How Do Clouds Form?
  • 1:36 What are Cirrus Clouds?
  • 2:35 Other Types of Cirrus Clouds
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Wahl

Megan has taught middle school science and developed curriculum for k-higher ed. She has a master's degree in Educational Technology.

Cirrus clouds are a type of cloud commonly observed in the sky. In this lesson, you will learn more about what cirrus clouds are, and also how to identify the different types of cirrus clouds.

Introduction to Cirrus Clouds

On a bright and sunny day, you may spot a few thin white clouds very high up in the sky. If you see small streaks of cloud like a streamer, you have found cirrus clouds.

This type of cloud is the most common you will see in the sky. Sometimes, cirrus clouds have the nickname 'mare's tails' because the cloud formation looks like a horse tail with thin, hair-like streaks of cloud stretching across the sky. Some people notice that airplanes moving through the sky leave behind a trail that looks a lot like cirrus clouds. These clouds often make beautiful color patterns in the sky as the sun rises or sets.

How Do Clouds Form?

All clouds form when two main factors are present:

1. Nuclei for water to stick to
2. A temperature below the dew point

Water is the main component of a cloud - it is everywhere in the atmosphere and on Earth's surface, always cycling back and forth from different states of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. In order for water to gather in a cloud, there must be a microscopic particle of dust, ocean spray, mineral, or soil present. These microscopic particles are nuclei, and they form a base for a water droplet to adhere to.

The second factor is that the air temperature in the atmosphere must fall below the saturation point at which evaporation equals condensation. This is often called the dew point temperature. Clouds develop into 27 different types depending on many other atmospheric conditions, and one type is the cirrus cloud, the focus of this lesson.

What Are Cirrus Clouds?

Cirrus clouds are thin wispy clouds found at high elevations in the atmosphere. They are usually located 20,000 feet above the ground and are known for their thin and wispy appearance. Clouds look so fluffy from the ground that many people wonder - what are clouds made of? If you could look inside a cloud, you would see that they are made up of water droplets. Cirrus clouds are so high in elevation - about 5 to 10 miles above where we stand on the earth - so they are also very cold.

When super-cooled water droplets move high into the atmosphere, they freeze and form ice crystals. Ice crystals determine the size and shape of cirrus clouds. Sunlight and moonlight is able to pass through the thin layers of ice crystals, and the sun often illuminates them creating a red or yellow effect as the sun rises and sets. You can determine the direction that weather is headed by observing cirrus clouds. They typically move with the wind from the west to the east in the direction of fair weather.

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