Summer Science Fun: Nephology

Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus © Sophie Brown
Cirrus clouds over stratocumulus. Image: © Sophie Brown.

Nephology is a branch of science you may have never heard of, but that almost all of us will have casually participated in during our lives. It is a branch of meteorology that deals with the study of clouds, and who among us hasn’t stared up into the sky at least once to note an especially unusual formation? Learning about clouds is something we can all get involved in no matter where we live and requires no expensive equipment to get started.

One of the simplest things we can do with clouds is learn to identify the different types. The cloud types you might see vary depending on your location, but the three basic types—stratus, cumulus, and cirrus—should be visible across most of the planet. NASA has produced a free Cloud Identification Chart PDF that you can print off, or you could follow the instructions provided by the Measured in Moments blog and make your own portable field guide. All you need is a printer and possibly a laminator; where there are clouds, there is often rain, after all.

Sunset over England © Sophie Brown
Sunset over England. Image: © Sophie Brown.

The Cloud Appreciation Society has teamed up with NASA to produce the CloudSpotter app for iDevices. The app awards achievements for correctly identifying different types of clouds that the user photographs, but it also has a secondary and more scientific purpose. Data from the app is accessed by NASA and used to help calibrate their CERES satellite, using the geo-tagged ground truth observations to help determine if their instruments are identifying clouds correctly. For those without access to the app, NASA invites you to take part in their Rover Project. The Rover Project is an offshoot of NASA’s S’COOL Project for classrooms which records the same types of observations, but through permanent locations.

For budding photographers, clouds can be an ever-changing and interesting subject—and one that won’t require expensive trips to capture. Interesting cloud photos can be taken at any time, but sunsets and storms will often provide especially stunning results. Just be sure to take care standing outside during inclement weather. If you take a really great photo, you could submit it to the Cloud Appreciation Society’s gallery, which is filled with astounding photos from all over the world, or to one of the many cloud groups on Flickr.

Clouds are inextricably linked with the water cycle, a great topic for younger children curious about the world around them. The UK Met Office has produced a short film that explains how clouds are formed, including an explanation of the water cycle and a basic look at some main types of clouds you might see.

Finally, once you’ve spent some time learning all about clouds, why not round it all off with a classic movie about them—sort of—Twister. OK, so the science is more than a little dubious at times, but no one can deny the power of that soundtrack or the brilliance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dustin. For more tornado-based films, there’s always The Wizard of Oz and Sharknado. Actually don’t bother with that last one…

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