Cover image for post How Clouds Got Their Names showing clouds in sky and text.

How Clouds Got Their Names

Do you like to look at clouds?  I love looking at all the different cloud formations when I am driving or walking.  And I love learning to recognize different types of clouds and what they tell us about the weather.

However, when my children and I went to learn the names of the clouds, we quickly became confused.  There are ten different types of common clouds and all of their names are formed from five Latin words.  They can quickly become jumbled in your head unless you start to recognize the reason behind their names!  Read on below and it will all start to make sense!

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The Altitude of the Cloud

Cirrus:  In Latin, cirrus means a ‘lock’ or ‘curl’ of hair.  These clouds are high in altitude, meaning they are at 20,000 feet or higher. They are also thin and wispy so their appearance is affected by their altitude.  They can remind you of the trails from airplanes.  Cirrus clouds occur during good weather, but usually indicate a change in the weather will happen within 24 hours.

Alto:  The Latin meaning of alto is ‘to raise, make high, or elevate’.  Singers will be familiar with this word as being higher than the tenor, but not the highest part in a vocal range.  Similarly, clouds with alto in the name are in the middle altitude.  These clouds range from 6500 to 20,000 feet in height.

Stratus:  Stratus means ‘spreading’, ‘cover’, or ‘layer’ in Latin.  It does double duty when it comes to clouds.  In the cloud names stratus and stratocumulus, it is referring to a low altitude.  These clouds are below 6500 feet.  Below, you will find stratus can refer to the appearance of clouds as well.

Drawing of different clouds at the correct heights with labels.

Cumulonimbus clouds are vertical towers that you often see when thunderstorms are in the area or there is a chance of thunderstorms.  They can stretch from low to high altitudes.  You will see below that the parts of their name refer to their appearance and their rain making ability.

Large cumulonimbus cloud with some blue sky showing.

The Appearance of the Cloud

Cumulus:  In Latin, cumulus means ‘heap’, ‘pile’, or ‘mound’.  Cumulus clouds are those lumpy clouds that are especially fun to look at.  The ones that when you were a child, you laid on the ground and tried to see different shapes in them: a dog, the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, a flower and more!  Now, I enjoy looking at these when driving and so do my children.  Cumulus clouds are a sign of good weather.

Large cumulus cloud surrounded by blue sky.

Stratus:  As I said above, stratus can refer to low altitude clouds.  Its Latin roots refer to appearance, though: ‘spreading’, ‘cover’ or ‘layer’.  When clouds cover the whole sky at any altitude, they will have stratus in the name.  These are often the gray days where you don’t see blue sky all day and you have your lights on in the middle of the day.

Gray sky with some land near bottom.

Rain Clouds

Nimbus:  The Latin word, nimbus, means ‘rainstorm’ or ‘cloud’.  Regardless, of height or appearance, if a cloud has nimbus in the name, it is a rain (or snow) maker.

Gray sky with nimbostratus clouds and land at the bottom.

Clouds Mini Unit Study

Learn more about clouds with this mini unit study!  Complete with video links, book suggestions and fun activities this unit study will provide a couple hours of fun learning.

Product cover for the Clouds Mini Unit Study showing four printable pages from the unit study.

Observe Clouds

A fun way to learn about clouds is to get outside and observe them!  I know, kind of obvious!  Drawing the clouds, though, will help your children really start to look at the details and see the similarities and differences between clouds.

This FREE notebooking page then walks them through answering a few questions about the cloud they drew to see if they can figure out the name of their cloud.  So, grab this simple, but fun learning activity and head outside!

Cloud Sorting Mats

It can take awhile to remember what the different clouds are named, how they are similar and different, and what kind of weather each type of cloud predicts.  One way we like to organize and practice information like this is with sorting mats.

These are mats that allow students to build their knowledge of clouds by matching the correct information together.  Here is an example below of what the sorting mat for middle altitude clouds looks like.

Printed paper mat with the title, Altitude: Mid and cards that match the Latin name and meaning and clouds that occur at the middle latitude.

As students begin to master the names of clouds and what they look like, the cards can be cut apart so that they have to match even more information.

Pictures of clouds with their name and what type of weather they predict.

To learn more about the sorting mats:

Cover for Cloud Sorting Mats Product showing title and pictures of four mats and two of the matching cards.

So do you have any other fun ways to learn about clouds?  Let us know my commenting below or sending us a message!

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