Did You Know?A single cumulonimbus cloud has as much energy as 10 atom bombs would have, and it can hold up to half a million tons of water.Ever looked up in the sky and tried tracing out some wonderful patterns and shapes of clouds that keep changing every few seconds? Clouds are large masses of tiny water droplets (vapors) or ice crystals covered in microscopic dust particles that float in the atmosphere.
Cumulonimbus comes from Latin words cumulus meaning heap and nimbus meaning rainstorm or storm cloud. Cumulonimbus clouds are large, fluffy, and mighty clouds that take the shape of an anvil or a huge mushroom at the top when well-developed. Cumulus StageCumulus cloud is the base of formation of a cumulonimbus cloud and also of tornadoes. Cumulonimbus clouds are a perfect example of how different altitudes influence the formation of clouds at different stages. Cool air can't hold as much water vapor as warm air, so some of the vapor condenses onto tiny pieces of dust that are floating in the air and forms a tiny droplet around each dust particle. Cold air cana€™t hold as much water as warm air a€“ which is why high altitude mountaineers become dehydrated a€“ so at a certain temperature, known as the dewpoint, the water vapour starts to rematerialise as tiny droplets of water. Gazing up at the sky on a calm day youa€™d be forgiven for thinking that clouds just float around all day. Due to the enormous volumes of water they carry, clouds are steadily falling towards the earth, forever changing, condensing and evaporating. To remain in the air, clouds need another source of energy which is generated by the cloud itself. As water vapour molecules come together in a cloud they release the heat absorbed during evaporation. Inside a cloud you'll find a maelstrom of air, rising and falling to produce swirling convection currents reaching speeds of up to 60mph. Aeroplanes flying through clouds often experience turbulence in the form of an air pocket (causing the plane to lose altitude) or a violent buffeting sensation that occurs when crossing two different air currents.
During the BBC series Operation Cloud Lab, atmospheric scientist Jim McQuaid and meteorologist Felicity Aston flew an airship through a small cumulus cloud in an attempt to weigh it.
Cloud droplets are spherical and the density of water is known, so the number and size of the droplets can be measured in a known volume (usually one cubic centimetre). Explore the BBC News News Sport Weather Shop Earth Travel Capital iPlayer Culture Autos Future TV Radio CBBC CBeebies Food iWonder Bitesize Travel Music Earth Arts Make It Digital Taster Nature Local Terms of Use About the BBC Privacy Policy Cookies Accessibility Help Parental Guidance Contact the BBC Advertise with us Ad choices Copyright © 2016 BBC. With violent thunderstorms over the UK in recent days, there have been some places that have experienced hail as well as torrential downpours of rain. Quite a few people have asked me on Twitter, how is it be possible for hail, small balls of ice, to reach the ground with temperatures in excess of 20C? So, I thought I’d write a blog to answer this question and give some insight into the processes that make this possible. Hailstones are generally 5-10mm in diameter, but in extremely severe thunderstorms, hailstones can have a diameter as much as 15cm. In order for them to form, a cumulonimbus cloud has to be present, as these are big and active enough to provide favourable conditions.
Within a cumulonimbus cloud, there are many particles of ice and super-cooled water – water that remains in liquid form at temperatures below freezing due to a lack of condensation nuclei for them to freeze around. Ice tends to be at near the top of the cloud, where the air temperature can be as low as minus 60C.
When a thunderstorm occurs, air moves violently up and down inside the cumulonimbus cloud – known as updraughts and downdraughts. As a small particle of ice gets caught in these updraughts and downdraughts, layers of ice or water gather on its surface, causing it to grow in size and become a hailstone.
For as long as the updraughts and downdraughts are strong enough to carry the hailstone, it will continue to bounce around in the cloud, getting bigger. However, when the hailstone is heavy enough, it will eventually no longer be able to be carried by the wind and will fall downwards – out of the cloud and towards the ground. As hailstones drop from the cloud quickly, cooling the air around them as they fall, they are able to reach the ground intact.
We’re taught in school about the difference between mass (the amount of ‘stuff’ in something), and weight (the force that gravity imposes of this ‘stuff’).
Air, despite its transparency, is not a bunch of nothing, it’s a complex soup of gases and vapours, and actually has quite a bit of mass* In fact, there the approximately 5 quadrillion metric tonnes of air in our atmosphere! There’s a famous experiment, probably performed daily in some school somewhere on the planet, that tries to demonstrate to students that air has mass.
You take two balloons, inflate them, and suspend them on either side of a finely balanced beam.
The air inside the full balloon is small, but enough to tip the balance down; as this air has weight.
In inflated balloon weighs more than an open-ended (uninflated) balloon because the air inside is under more pressure (so there is more of it for the same volume) than air outside. The Helium in the child’s balloon has mass, but Helium is significantly less dense than the air surrounding it (less mass for the same volume). When an object is floating neutrally in a fluid, it’s not really weightless, it’s actually distributed its weight throughout the rest of the supporting fluid (and eventually back into the ground!) Huh? That’s right, when a balloon floats up in the air, it’s still pressing down on the ground with the same force it did when laying uninflated on the ground.


Even though the boat is floating ‘weightless’ in the water, what has happened is that, through buoyancy, the weight of the boat has been transferred to the water and this, in turn, is transferring this this force through the floor of the pool and into the ground.
When water in the atmosphere condenses out of the air (changes from a vapour phase to a liquid phase), it either forms water droplets or ice crystals, depending on the local conditions. You might have been told at school that warm air can ‘hold’ more moisture than cold air, and this is why clouds form. You might have been told that as warm ‘moist’ air cools down, as it drops below something called a 'dew point temperature' (the point that it can no longer ‘hold’ any more moisture), then the air becomes saturated and the vapour condenses out, forming clouds.
Water molecules are present in air, and they are bouncing around as vapour (along with all the other molecules of gas). Pools of water with a large surface areas evaporate quicker, as there is more surface area for molecules to escape from, than similar volumes of water with smaller surface areas. We’re getting further away from clouds but this also explains why adding salt (or other substances) to water raises its boiling point. What appears to be cloud free air contains water molecules as liquid drops, it’s just they are so tiny and so short lasting that they don’t get chance to coalesce with others!
At the dew point (or colder), the super tiny drops being created have chance to stay around, grow, and this is how clouds form! Yes, you read that correctly, 'dry' air is more dense (at the same temperature and pressure), than 'wet' air. To understand this, we need to know a little bit more about of the physical properties of gases.
For any gas, at a given temperature and pressure, the number of molecules present is constant for a particular volume. That’s pretty big statement, but explained in a slightly different way “equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contain the same number of molecules regardless of their chemical nature and physical properties”.
In our situation what it means is that if the air contains a water molecules, to have the same temperature and pressure, it needs less of other the gases constituents. When air dries, you are not 'wringing' out water from the air to make it lighter, you are replacing the water molecules with heavier molecular mass gas molecules. As a first order approximations, dry air contain approximately 80% Nitrogen gas (N2), whose molecules have an molecular mass of about 28, and approximately 20% Oxygen (O2), with atomic mass of 32, giving an average mass for dry air of 29 (the trace amounts of the other gases, whilst most are heavy, are so small in quantity that they make small difference to the value).
So, when a water molecule replaces one of the dry air molecules to maintain the same temperature and pressure, the average weight of the molecules decreases. Just as sweating and evaporation keep you cool by taking away heat, the inverse (adding heat) occurs when vapour condenses. Make a small hole with your lips, move your hand an few inches from your face, and blow quite quickly onto it. Clouds float because they displace air to make them buoyant, but they are not 'weightless'. The water stored in clouds weighs the same amount in the sky, and presses down on the planet with just the same force, as it does when it is sitting directly on the planet in seas, rivers and lakes.
The water vapour in the air in our atmosphere is in a constant state of dynamic equilibrium. As condensation occurs, the water precipitates out (making the cloud denser that just the humid air). Because of the huge variability hinted at by the last point, there's actually quite a wide range of densities of condensed water in clouds. It's worth noting that, even in densest clouds, the weight of this condensed water inside it is thousands of times smaller than the weight of the air holding it! That sounds like a lot, and without context it is, but remember that whilst a cloud might contain thousands of tonnes of water, the air holding this will weighs millions and millions of tonnes. They shower us with the necessary rainfall that is one of the most important factors for our sustenance on this planet.
So, the next time you spot a mushroom- or anvil-shaped cloud, you will surely recognize them. But beneath their fluffy exteriors they can be vast and unpredictable and packed full of water.
Water evaporates as the sun warms the ground, rising as a thermal of moist hot air which cools as it rises.
This is the beginning of a cloud, but in order to weigh one you must first understand the dynamics. Even a small cumulus cloud can weigh as much as two elephants and scientists estimate that an average-sized cumulus cloud could contain as much as 200 tonnes of water. Types of cloudThere are 10 main groups of clouds called genera that are divided into three levels a€“ cloud low, cloud medium and cloud high a€“ depending on the altitude at which they are found. Wowed by a cloudWhat kind of weather is usually associated with the following types of cloud?
In order to deliver a personalised, responsive service and to improve the site, we remember and store information about how you use it. Super-cooled water tends to be nearer the bottom half of the cloud, where temperatures are closer to freezing. This is because they start melting on their way towards the ground as they fall through warm air – effectively sticking together.
As it cools there is a chance it will cool below the dew point and this will cause the condensation to become dominant and clouds will form.


The anvil or mushroom shape is caused due to the strong wind shear or warm air turbulence when the cloud reaches the troposphere. The moisture rapidly cools down and condenses to form tiny drops of water, forming the rising cumulus clouds. Media requires JavaScript to play.As the atomisers are switched on, miniature clouds appear as the liquid water is broken down into tiny droplets of water. Media requires JavaScript to play.Atmospheric scientist Jim McQuaid and meteorologist Felicity Aston weigh a cloud. The height and temperature of the atmosphere where the clouds exist will determine whether they are made up of ice or water droplets, and ultimately how much they weigh.PreviousNextMammatus (breast in Latin) clouds are not clouds in their own right but a side effect of other clouds, and look particularly impressive with cumulonimbus clouds. If there is enough instability in the air, the updraft of warm air is rapid and the water vapour will quickly form a cumulonimbus cloud. They can be really fascinating and mesmerizing at times, and make you wonder in awe about the magical phenomena of nature. Talking about the appearance and altitudes, the most gigantic and king of clouds is the cumulonimbus cloud.
It continues to rise, gradually going above the freezing point where exist the tiny droplets and ice crystals. Composed mainly of ice, they often form on the back edge of a retreating storm.Getty ImagesMike Hill Stratus clouds are mid-level layer clouds and are fairly boring to look at, mostly producing a flat, grey, overcast sky. Typically, these cumulonimbus clouds can form in under an hour.As the warm air continues to rise, the water droplets combine to create larger droplets which freeze to form ice crystals.
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This Buzzle article takes you through some facts, description, and formation of cumulonimbus clouds. By now, you may already be having a question in mind―do cumulonimbus clouds form tornadoes? They are the largest of all clouds, which are formed from cumulus clouds, and are the base for tornadoes.
Extreme and sudden changes in pressure can result in rotations, causing severe and destructive tornadoes.
Being so thin they only tend to produce light drizzle or snow.Getty ImagesPeter LewisScattered cumulus clouds showing little vertical growth on sunny days used to be termed fair weather cumulus. Parts of the UK, especially in the North East, saw some impressive thunderstorms overnight with frequent lightning and hail the size of golf balls.
As result of circulating air in the clouds, water freezes on the surface of the droplet or crystal.
If the ‘carrying capacity’ of air is dependent on its temperature then we’d have expected no difference, but the water that gets in the air (at the same temperature) is dependent on liquid, not the air.
Through the convection precipitation, the air tends to rise in an updraft, resulting in the creation of a low-pressure zone below the developing thunderstorm. At higher altitudes, the ice crystals are in abundance because the temperatures are below the freezing point. The clouds start collapsing as there is no release of latent heat due to freezing of the water droplets.
As they grow vertically, they become towering cumulus and with strong updrafts they can become deep cumulonimbus clouds producing rain.Getty ImagesCumulus clouds can develop and grow into towering cumulonimbus clouds with cloud tops extending to more than 39,000ft. The central plains in the USA are often called 'Tornado Alley', and during the rainy season, Florida encounters tornadoes almost daily.
At this point, there can be drastic air turbulence, leading the cloud to flatten out at the top and finally manifesting as lightning, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. These clouds contain vast amounts of energy and water vapour which can develop into heavy rain, lightning and even tornadoes.Getty ImagesHein von HorstenCirrus clouds are found at high altitude around 20000 ft where their thin and wispy appearance is shaped by strong winds. These are simple text files which sit on your computer, and are only used by us and our trusted partners. They have the potential to grow and form a Supercell cloud, which can be the most rigorous of thunderstorms. The expected intensity of the storms on Friday mean we have issued a Yellow 'be aware' severe weather warning.Isolated heavy, and possibly severe, thunderstorms are expected to develop on Friday evening across parts of England and Wales.
Cumulus clouds are capable of quickly developing into large cumulonimbus clouds, resulting in powerful thunderstorms and Supercells. Cirrus have also been observed on other planets.Getty ImagesGuenter FischerAltocumulus clouds are mid-level clouds that are sometimes referred to as a mackerel sky. These are likely to become more frequent later and spread northwards towards southern Scotland. The clumps of cloud known as cloudlets resemble cotton wool balls and can indicate storms if the tops are bumpy, meaning that the air higher up is unstable.Getty ImagesJason SwainLenticular clouds are formed by strong winds passing over mountains to produce standing waves in the air above.



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