“Fight blue-sky thinking.”

So says part of the manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society. This London-based organization (with a membership of 11,546 cloud spotters) takes the position that “clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.”

Furthermore, says the society, “Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked. They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save on psychoanalysis bills.”

Who am I to disagree? Why not live life with your head in the clouds, or, if you can’t get that high, at least gazing up at them?

While perhaps not a national pastime, cloud watching is universal and has been practiced throughout history. Seeing shapes, animals, and other forms in clouds may or may not reduce your therapy tab, but it does put you in good company.

There even is a name for the art and science of it. Nephelococcygia, coined by Aristophanes in 414 B.C. (strangely enough, in his play The Birds, not in his play The Clouds), describes the finding of shapes in clouds. You may just need that psychologist, though, since the translation of the word is “cloud cuckooland.”

A world without clouds is not only a crazy one, but also a dead one. Clouds are just visible masses of condensed water vapor, but they also are what bring us precipitation. No clouds means no rain, sleet, snow or hail. It makes me parched just thinking about it.

Clouds form when moist air cools below its dew point (the temperature that vapor condenses). When you blow your breath onto window glass, the glass is usually cool enough to lower the temperature of your breath below its dew point, and you see a cloud on the window.

Modern scientific consideration of clouds began in earnest in the early 1800s, when French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the first system for classifying clouds by altitude. Alas, his system was blown away like clouds on a windy day. Luke Howard is given credit for a superior system that he developed a year later.

Howard’s system gave names to types of clouds identified by the shape, rather than by altitude. Cumulus (meaning “heaps”) were groups of separate clouds with bulbous tops and flat bottoms. Stratus clouds were layers of clouds. Cirrus were wispy, hair-like curling clouds, and nimbus were those that brought rain.

The end of the 1800s saw a deluge (so to speak) of cloud studies. Meteorologist Ralph Abercromby circled the globe to see if clouds were the same around the world. He, along with Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, improved on Howard’s system, and in 1896 — the International Year of Clouds — their International Cloud Atlas was published and adopted.

In the atlas, 10 types of clouds were identified. The ninth type was cumulonimbus, a type that reached highest into the sky, giving rise to the expression “to be on cloud nine.” Each and every type has its characteristics and accompanying weather indications. They are grouped into categories based on altitude (which Lamarck would probably feel vindicated to hear!)

Lamarck would certainly be considered an honorary founding member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. For you or me, joining requires a small donation. No matter; don’t let the lack of credentials cloud your thinking on the splendor of the sky.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.