The 10 types of cloud you’ll see in Britain (and what they tell us about the weather)

Richard Webber takes a look at the most common clouds you'll spot in the skies above Britain.

‘I was about nine and flying for the first time,’ explains author Richard Hamblyn of the moment that clouds began to dictate his life.

‘Gazing at the clouds, I started worrying about what would happen to the plane when it reached the clouds. They looked solid and I didn’t know if we’d be able to fly through them. But, to my great relief, we were soon above the clouds and experiencing a different microclimate: bright sun, incredibly blue sky and a carpet of stratocumulus clouds stretching for miles below us. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen and that memory has remained with me.’

True lovers of clouds can tell dozens of different types apart — and those who find them endlessly fascinating should take a look at the books of Richard Hamblyn and the website of the Cloud Appreciation Society at  www.cloudappreciationsociety.org. To get you started, here are 10 of the most common you’ll find in the skies above our island.


High clouds (base above 20,000ft)

Cirrus

Cirrus clouds above a Dorset church.

Often indicate a change in the weather is coming. Although they release precipitation, the drops re-evaporate before reaching the ground.


Cirrocumulus

Cirrocumulus above the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.

Usually associated with fair weather, although their appearance can often be before stormy weather.


Cirrostratus

Cirrostratus at St Monans, Fife.

Made of ice crystals, this thin sheet of cloud usually indicates a warm front is approaching and a change of weather is expected soon.


Medium clouds (base 6,500ft–20,000ft)

Altocumulus

Altocumulus at Seahouses, Northumberland.

Usually seen in settled weather. Precipitation is rare, but if it does fall, it never reaches the ground.


Altostratus

Altostratus above a road lined with common gorse in Scotland.

A near-featureless sheet of cloud often precedes a warm front and usually indicates a change in the weather is close.


Nimbostratus

Nimbostratus looms above Dornie at Loch Long.

These dark, grey, featureless clouds are usually accompanied by moderate rain or snow, lasting several hours.


Low clouds (base below 6,500ft)

Stratocumulus

Stratocumulus storm clouds in cloud formation in springtime at Swinbrook in the Cotswolds.

Clumpy clouds that can be seen in all weather conditions. Colours range from white to dark grey, yet it’s rare that they produce anything but light drizzle.


Stratus

Featureless, grey stratus clouds hanging over Dartmoor.

Covers the sky in featureless grey or white and is not usually associated with precipitation. However, if thick enough, expect light drizzle or snow.


Cumulus

Large cumulus cloud in late evening at Englefield Green, Surrey.

These fluffy clouds pop up on bright sunny days and are among the most common. Usually indicate good weather.


Cumulonimbus

There may be trouble ahead…

With their distinctive, anvil-shaped top, these mighty clouds are linked with extreme weather, including torrential rain, hail and thunderstorms.