The Cloud Watchers

Emerson testified to the art gallery in the skies. Now, a group of cloud-watchers seek to share the magnificence found above.

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Emerson testified to the art gallery in the skies. Now, a group of cloud-watchers seek to share the magnificence found above.

Walk down a busy street. If most of the people passing by you had their heads tilted back staring up at the clouds, what would you think — that you were dreaming or that Martians were landing? The scenario seems unlikely in our pent-up present-day world, yet more people are taking the time to gaze upwards at nature’s magnificent displays in the sky.

A growing movement — nurtured by the Internet — now focuses attention on the upper skies and their curious, ever-changing daytime formations.

“I call it cloud consciousness,” says Jack Borden, a former Boston TV reporter who has made cloud watching and its promotion his primary passion for several decades. His For Spacious Skies organization helps promote “sky awareness” to young people through school projects.

Thirty years ago, Borden walked down an Arlington, Massachusetts, street, microphone in hand, stopping people, putting his hand over their eyes visor-style, and asking them to describe the sky. Not one mentioned the big puffy clouds drifting across the deep-blue background. “They didn’t even know if there were any clouds,” he says.

Borden’s reporting brought an outpouring of calls and letters from viewers whose sky awareness had been aroused. Area teachers became excited about sky watching and began building lessons around sky field trips to view what Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted to be the ultimate art gallery just above. The new experience seemed to stimulate learning. “The teachers were amazed at how it improved scholarship,” says Borden, who left reporting and started his nonprofit organization. His group was behind the series of cloud stamps issued a few years ago by the U.S. Postal Service.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, an English author and cloud advocate, has connected thousands of closet cloud watchers on his Cloud Appreciation Society Internet site.

The site is filled with more than four thousand gorgeous cloud photos of every classification and type snapped from every corner of the globe — even some from outer space, via cloud-spotting NASA astronauts.

“Maybe you can’t travel to all these places, but you can see the clouds over their skies,” says Pretor-Pinney. He’s thought about, but is not sure how to make, international cloud watching done in real time, though he thinks some day it may happen.

All the wonder above us begs the question of why most people relate to the sky and clouds simply as a kind of visual Muzak, unable to focus on some of nature’s most sublime free entertainment.

“Paying attention is a habit,” Borden explains, “and people are just not in the habit of seeing clouds as something relevant to their lives. Others tell them the weather, and most folks don’t seem to care any further.”

But for people who do take it further, there’s a wonder and pleasure that come only from looking upwards and really seeing the water droplets and air interplay in unending formations and movements in the atmosphere.

“Having a link with something that moves in such an eternal and graceful way slows you down,” says Pretor-Pinney. “And so I say spending time with your head in the clouds makes you a bit more grounded.”

Colorful Clouds

  • The various colors of clouds can tell you what may be going on inside them. Clouds arise when water vapor in the air cools and condenses into micro-droplets. When the particles of water are densely packed, they reflect sunlight, giving a cloud its characteristic white color.
  • As a cloud grows, its water droplets combine to produce larger droplets, causing the space between the droplets to enlarge as well and allowing light to penetrate. The more light that penetrates and is not reflected back, the grayer the cloud becomes. Thus grayer clouds may indicate rain.
  • Bluish-gray clouds occur because blue and green light, at the short end of the visible spectrum, are more easily scattered by water droplets, while long wavelengths (red and yellow) are absorbed. The bluish color indicates rain-sized droplets in the cloud.
  • A greenish hue appears when sunlight is scattered by ice. When a cumulonimbus cloud turns green, heavy rain, hail, strong winds, and tornadoes may be imminent.
  • Yellowish clouds are rare and occur primarily during forest fire season. The yellow indicates the presence of smoke.
  • Pink, orange, and red clouds are seen only at sunrise or sunset, the result of clouds reflecting the unscattered long rays of sunlight during those hours.

Sky Watch and Be Mindful

Do you know what the clouds looked like today? Here in Los Angeles County at dusk, long sheets of cirrus clouds streaked down the center of a mulberry-lit sky. Gorgeous. As I walked this evening—as I do every evening—I watched and did not see one person look or glance up at the sky. We live in a stunning world. What a shame to flash by it on a regular basis. Three things on this planet anchor us to the fact that we’re basically wind-swept flecks in an unhurried cosmos: the ocean, the mountains, and the celestial patterns in the sky. This most certainly includes clouds.

And while not everyone is lucky enough to have a view of the mountains or the sea, everyone gets an equal opportunity to look at the sky, 24/7, for free. Bill Gates and the poorest man standing near him see the exact same cloud formations above their heads.

Now if you were one of those kids who loved to lie on your back and stare for hours at the clouds making strange shapes, try to revive some of that youngster in you. Unfortunately, for most people over the age of ten, sky-watching probably falls in the “Don’t you have something better to do!” category. Try and ignore this.

The most powerful way I know to shift your “cloud awareness” is to take mindful note of the sky every day by jotting down the sky’s cloud formations for a month or more in your journal. If you don’t have a journal, start a cloud journal—or scribble the formations down on stray sheets of paper and keep them in a pile.

Myself, I’ve kept sporadic track of clouds for decades, and what I’ll ever do with the knowledge that on Sep-tember 15, 1982, the sky over Los Angeles was filled with extraordinary pink cumulus clouds at sunset, I’m not sure. But I do believe, in some way, that my taking notice has elevated my life.

—Janet Kinosian

Cloud Watching on the Web

Visit the following excellent websites to connect with other cloud lovers.
Website devoted to cloud photography. Colorado photographer Gregory Thompson, an atmospheric scientist and meteorologist, displays breathtaking photos, including many rarer clouds, such as rotor, mammatus and Kelvin-Helmholtz wave clouds. Also offers excellent tips on cloud and sky photography.
Imaginative fans of clouds-that-look-like-things will want to check out the Environmental Graffiti website. Featuring what it calls the “30 Creepiest Clouds on Earth,” including cloudy famous faces [Bette Davis] and figures [cross-legged demons], cloud animals [Energizer Bunny] and various bizarre shapes [smoke angels and ET’s pointing finger]. Great fun—and what the kid in all of us adores about cloud humor.

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