7 clouds that’ll help you predict the weather

They can be pretty, they can be angry – but look closely and they can tell you a lot.
By Alison Mann

Clouds are beautiful, hypnotic, fierce and always interesting to look at. They aren't just in the sky to look good, though, and if you learn a few things they can help you predict the weather. With Red Bull X-Alps kicking off on July 2, we’ve compiled a list of what certain clouds mean if you’re trying to predict the weather – and why the athletes should take note!

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Impressive lenticular clouds

A lenticular cloud
A lenticular cloud over an extinct volcano © David H. Collier/Getty Images

Cloud name: Lenticular
What it means: Warmer, windier weather but tough for paragliders

If you’re just going about your normal life, these clouds are nothing to be concerned about, says Morecast’s mountain meteorologist Clemens Teutsch: “These clouds are special-shaped. They form when Foehn winds arrive. They look like lenses in the sky and, for a normal person, it’s fine, the weather gets warmer and windier. It gets complicated for the athletes, as they have to work with stronger winds and turbulence.”

In the wake of a storm

An atmospheric mammatus cloud
An atmospheric mammatus cloud © David Mayhew

Cloud name: Mammatus
What it means: There has been a storm

Mammatus clouds are an indication that the weather should get more stable, says Clemens, but could be bad news for the Red Bull X-Alps athletes: “These clouds come together with thunderstorms. Mostly these clouds can be seen when the storm is over and the weather begins to get more stable. When the athletes see these clouds they have to face wet conditions on earth and probably no thermals or wind in the air any more.”

Thunderstorm ahead

A stormy wall cloud
A stormy wall cloud © David Mayhew

Cloud name: Wall cloud
What it means: Be prepared for a storm

When you see a wall cloud, be prepared for a thunderstorm. Clemens says: “They indicate the arrival of a thunderstorm and show the region of the strongest updraft within a storm. Sometimes they rotate. Nevertheless thunderstorms then bring dangerous conditions like hail, strong winds and lightning.”

Perfect weather with a cumulus

Cumulus over fields
Cumulus over fields © David Mayhew

Cloud name: Cumulus
What it means: Perfect weather conditions

Everyone can be happy when they see a cumulus cloud, says Clemens: “These indicate perfect weather conditions, with good upwinds, and these are the best conditions for paragliders. The higher they get, the better the thermal conditions are.”

Cumulonimbus means watch out

A paraglider during X-Alps 2013
A paraglider during Red Bull X-Alps 2013 © Felix Woelk/Red Bull Content Pool

Cloud name: Cumulonimbus
What it means: Paragliders should be careful

Thunderstorms begin with a cumulus cloud, which under the right conditions grows into a cumulonimbus. Hugh Miller, from Cross Country magazine, explains why these clouds can be problematic for paragliders: “In paragliding we look for cumulus clouds that are wider than they are tall. If it looks like a top hat, you start to get concerned. These clouds are like massive Hoovers, the taller they are the more they can suck up a paraglider like a bit of debris. The power of one of these clouds can take you up to 30,000ft [10,000m]. If cumulus clouds start to get bigger, you need to tread carefully, as they could become cumulonimbus. During Red Bull X-Alps the athletes can be a bit selective, as on mountains the clouds tend to be localised.”

Icy cirrus clouds

Cirrus clouds are formed mainly by ice
Cirrus clouds are formed mainly by ice © Jim Reed/Getty Images

Cloud name: Cirrus
What it means: The weather will change

These clouds can point to a change in weather, says Clemens Teutsch: “These thin clouds are mostly made of ice. They can indicate it is getting warmer high in the atmosphere. It normally takes one day until the next weather front arrives.”

Watch a hang glider surf a morning glory cloud

Cloud name: Morning glory
What it means: Perfect upwinds for paragliding

These clouds won’t be seen during Red Bull X-Alps. They are good for paragliding, though, says Clemens: “These are rare, especially in Europe. They can be seen in Northern Australia, and are also called roll clouds. They form when winds come together and make convergence to cause a wave in the atmosphere, and they mostly cause turbulence. They are normally perfect for paragliders because of the upwinds.”

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