These 7 Clouds Will Help You Predict the Weather

Clouds can be dreamy, pretty and even scary, but above all they can say a lot about what's coming.
A lenticular cloud
A lenticular cloud over an extinct volcano © David H. Collier/Getty Images
By Alison Mann

Relaxing in the grass and gazing up at the clouds as they pass is one of the all-time most relaxing things to do. But if you get weary of trying to pick out dog faces and cartoon characters, you might find that all of those characteristics of the clouds are trying to tell you something else.

Clouds can be beautiful, hypnotic and fierce, but more importantly, they can help you predict the weather. With Red Bull X-Alps kicking off on July 2, the competitors will be looking to the clouds to determine if they can take to their paragliders or remain on the ground. We’ve compiled a list of what certain clouds mean to the weather and why the athletes should take note!

Impressive lenticular clouds (pictured at top)

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 [dry, warm, down-slope wind on the downwind side of a mountain range] 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.”


An atmospheric mammatus cloud
An atmospheric mammatus cloud © David Mayhew

In the wake of a storm

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

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


A stormy wall cloud
A stormy wall cloud © David Mayhew

Thunderstorm ahead

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

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


Cumulus over fields
Cumulus over fields © David Mayhew

Perfect weather with a cumulus

Cloud name: Cumulus
What it means: Perfect weather conditions

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


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

Cumulonimbus means watch out

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

Thunderstorms begin with a cumulus cloud, which under the right conditions grow 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 [vacuums]. 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 30,000 feet. 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 localized.”


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

Icy cirrus clouds

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

These clouds can point to a change in weather, says 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.”


Morning glory (watch a hang glider surf a morning glory cloud above)

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

These clouds won’t be seen during Red Bull X-Alps as they are rare and seldom seen in Europe. They are good for paragliding though, says Teutsch. “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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