Clouds Make Headlines

It's not often a cloud makes the news, especially one that isn't associated with hurricane, tornado, or violent storm. On June 12, however, newspapers all over the country ran an Associated Press story about a very strange cloud described as looking "like Armageddon."

The story began back in 2006 when a woman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, photographed a strange sky from the 11th floor of her office building (top, by Jane Wiggins). The cloud dissipated in 15 minutes and the woman held onto the photograph until just recently when she shared it with a group of dedicated weather watchers associated with the Cloud Appreciation Society based in England. The group posted the photograph online, but did not know how to categorize it. It was definitely a cumulus (heaped, puffy) cloud, but which type? It didn't seem to fit the known categories of culumus, altocumulus, or stratocumulus clouds. So the Society has begun lobbying the Royal Meteorological Society in England to create a new category--altocumulus undulatus asperatus. The last word, meaning agitated, is not part of an existing cloud name.

Why is this news? Because a new cloud type has not been recognized by scientists since 1951. And because doing so is controversial. The Society of splitters says it's new and different, the group of lumpers says it's an regular old altocumulus undulatus that no one has taken the time to comment on or "discover" until now. One lumper at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, argues that when the photo was taken in 2006, "there was no atmospheric condition that caused a new kind of cloud to form."

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. It may not be a new cloud, but a newly discovered cloud. Now that the Cloud Appreciation Society has a website where photographers can post their unusual cloud photos for identification, more and more people are noticing clouds and trying to learn something about them. Yay.