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Cumulus Cloud: Definition, Facts & Types

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  • 0:01 Definition of a Cumulus Cloud
  • 1:12 Other Types of Cumulus Clouds
  • 3:01 Formation of Cumulus Clouds
  • 4:31 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.

There are many different types of clouds in the atmosphere. Cumulus clouds are a common variety you may observe in the sky. In this lesson, you will learn how cumulus clouds form, how to identify them, and the different types of cumulus clouds that occur in nature.

Definition of a Cumulus Cloud

When children draw a picture of a cloud in the sky, it often looks like a big, fluffy cotton ball. This type of cloud is a cumulus cloud. It appears big, white, and puffy. The name comes from the Latin word cumulo, which means 'piles.' The word accumulate stems from this Latin root as well, and cumulus clouds form in a way that looks as though the cloud material has accumulated, or piled up.

A cumulus cloud is easy to identify when you look at the sky. It appears as a large, dense, and clearly formed white cloud. It has edges that you can observe and is typically an individual, detached cloud. The shape looks flat on the bottom and rounded on the top, and the sky in between the clouds is generally blue.

These clouds grow upward as warm air carries moisture higher into the cloud. As such, a cumulus cloud indicates that warm air is moving upward in the atmosphere, a process called an uplift or thermal uplift. Cumulus clouds are lower in the atmosphere, about 1,000 feet from the ground. Low-level clouds under 6,000 feet are fair-weather cumulus clouds and indicate that the weather will be calm and without precipitation.

Other Types of Cumulus Clouds

As a cumulus cloud grows, it gets bigger and more rounded at the top. When the top of the cloud begins to look like a head of cauliflower, it's called a cumulus congestus or a towering cumulus. Some precipitation, in the form of rain showers, will fall from this type of cloud.

If the cloud continues to grow, fueled by warm air on the ground, it develops into a cumulonimbus cloud. Cumulonimbus clouds become darker at the base and grow enormous in vertical size. The tops can reach 39,000 feet into the atmosphere, and the bottoms are low to the ground, around 1,000 feet off. They often resemble anvils in these cases.

Thunderstorms develop in these towering clouds, and energy builds from the rapid condensation of water. That energy is released during the storm. Severe weather conditions such as damaging winds, torrential rains, thunder, lightning, tornadoes, and hail are associated with the cumulonimbus cloud. Enormous cumulonimbus clouds are called mammatus clouds and indicate severe weather.

Other combinations of clouds can form that involve cumulus, such as:

  • Cumulus fractus clouds form as precipitation falls, and they appear as ragged shreds of clouds low in the sky.
  • Stratocumulus clouds look like patches of cumulus clouds. These can form from cumulus clouds spreading out, or they can form on their own.
  • Altocumulus clouds are thin and have varying levels of transparency in the sky. Some allow sun and moonlight through, and others block the light partially or completely.
  • Cirrocumulus clouds are not very common. These clouds occur in tiny segments or grains and are arranged in ripples across the entire sky.

Formation of Cumulus Clouds

All clouds need two main ingredients to form: a temperature below the dew point and a microscopic speck of dust, sea spray, smoke, soil deposit, or other particle to form around called cloud condensation nuclei. When the dew point temperature is below the saturation point, during which evaporation is equal to condensation in the atmosphere, water droplets begin to collect around the tiny speck of dust or other material. The water droplets are attracted to the nuclei, the way paperclips attach to a magnet. The attraction of water to the particles is described as hygroscopic.

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