The Cloud Book, cover

Published in association with the UK Met Office this book is an accessible guide to clouds and related phenomenon; particularly when caused by moisture in the atmosphere.

How to Understand the Skies. Being on Cloud Nine and Other Stories

People have been fascinated by clouds for millennia. Especially on warm summer days, children, dreamers and lovers lie on their backs and watch the clouds make shapes that fuel their imagination and dreams.

The Cloud Book is divided up into four principal sections:

Clouds and Their Classification

Starting with the history of cloud classification Richard Hamblyn describes the development of the system used today. It is still recognisably derived from the original classification system devised in 1802 by the pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864).

Having set out the modern classification the book then goes on to explain how it should be used.

The Principal Clouds

Clouds classification fits with Linnaean taxonomy systems by having ten genera, the names that will be known to anyone with an interest in weather: Cumulus, Cirrus, Stratus and the like. These can then be broken down in to the less well known species so one might have Cumulus fractus – the fair weather clouds in which we see shapes.

Each cloud species is lavishly illustrated with colour photographs supported by detailed explanation of how they are formed and transform into other clouds. The text further explains how the weather will develop as the clouds are created by the underlying weather system.

Other Clouds and Effects

After covering the main clouds in detail The Cloud Book moves on to cover more esoteric clouds and related phenomenon caused by moisture in the atmosphere:

  • Accessory Clouds – one example is virga or fallstreaks
  • Supplementary Features – such as the funnel clouds that create waterspouts
  • Special Clouds – for example nacreous or mother of pearl clouds
  • Man-made Clouds – condensation trails or contrails for example
  • Optical Phenomena and Effects – such as crepuscular rays sometimes known as “Jacobs Ladder” or “Angel Light” by artists

Clouds and Climate Change

Finally the book covers the impact of climate change on clouds and especially how clouds may, and have, influenced global temperatures for example by global dimming caused by contrails from aircraft.

It is an invaluable field guide that will allow the amateur to identify clouds with accuracy. This is a book that will appeal to many: amateur meteorologists, sailors, walkers and others who enjoy outdoor recreation and those for whom being able to forecast short term changes in the weather is a safety matter. But it will also appeal to photographers, artists and poets who want to put a name to what they have seen or pictured.

Indeed in the 1820s John Constable, famed for his big skies, took his study of meteorology seriously and used “a heavily annotated copy of Howard’s classification” when painting more than 100 cloud studies of Hampstead Heath in London. Today he would probably use The Cloud Book.

As The Cloud Book, How to Understand the Skies (978-0-7153-2808-8) is published in 2008 by David and Charles at £9.99 ($16.99) in association with The Met Office in the UK one can safely trust its authority which is supported as its author, Richard Hamblyn, is a Research Fellow in the Water, Culture and Society project at Nottingham University. He is also the author of The Invention of Clouds and has followed The Cloud Book up with Extraordinary Clouds containing pictures of dramatic skies.


First seen on Suite101

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