Nearly eight months later, I decided to brave the skies for the first time since the pandemic. Something that struck me were the clouds we were flying above. The types, the textures, the density – the diversity of form is all the more clear when you look at them in a broad expanse. I am much more familiar looking at clouds over the water in smaller chunks nestled in inlets and coves. What I had noticed, even in these small chunks, was that the cloud cover and complexity has started to increase with the change in season.

After looking into weather statistics (via Weather Spark) to explore the changes in wind over the seasons a couple of weeks ago, I decided to also investigate how clouds might change over the seasons. There is quite a bit of variation from one part of the year to the next. Not surprisingly, the clearer part of the year is over the summer months when the weather is also typically drier and the temperatures warmer. Come fall, the cloudier period of the year begins, with the cloudiest period being in October and November. That also coincides with a period of more precipitation, be it fall fog or actual rain.

In preparation for flight, I discovered a new app that has an abundance of information about clouds. The app, Flyover Country, lets you look at all kinds of natural and man-made features from the air if you pre-load a map ahead of flying. In addition, there are resources on the types of things that you see from the air – including clouds. The descriptions helped me to remember the various types of clouds as well as the conditions that they cause or that cause them to form.

The three primary types of clouds that every student learns at some point are cirrus, stratus and cumulus. In the most basic definition, cirrus are the wispy ones that are high up. They are made up of ice crystals since they are so high up where the air is drier and cold. Stratus clouds are the lower clouds that often look like a stretched out quilt. And cumulus are somewhere in the middle – they are the billowy white ones that look like cartoon clouds. When you attach a “nimbi” to any of these, that means the cloud is a rain cloud (like cumulonimbus). In addition to these basic types, there are innumerable other variations including cumulus clouds that occur higher up in the stratosphere called stratocumulus or cirrus clouds that occur down in the mid level called altostratus. Then, there are the names for the bizarre formations. Some of my favorites are cirrus unkinks, cirrus clouds with upturned hooks (like a unicorn’s horns) and cumulus castellans, clouds with towering tops like castles.

Given that clouds both form from and produce precipitation, the coincidence in the increase in frequency of clouds in October and November along with the increase in precipitation makes perfect sense. It’s all part of the water cycle, which is one of those amazing things that takes the same water and recycles it over and over again, moving it around and changing it from one form to another – ice, snow, fog, rain, and – water. Basically, the sun heats the earth and the moisture rises up into the atmosphere until it condenses into clouds. When it happens over water instead of land, however, things change a bit. More moisture is added to the lower atmosphere, which is why we often end up with coastal fog.

When you fly out from a place like Maine in the early morning, you get to go up through all of these layers – from the misty haze over the ocean up into a few puffy cumulus clouds reflecting the pink morning light, then through the widespread quilt of stratus and finally up into the crystalline world of the cirrus clouds. It was like flying through various layers of the ocean or types of waves to think, as strange as it may seem, that they are all connected.

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