Sunday, August 04, 2013

Clouds: I've seen a few

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren't the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud's formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
Linus Van Pelt : Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean.
[points up]
Linus Van Pelt: That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there...
Linus Van Pelt: me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That's very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Well... I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

I'm very much in the Linus camp rather than sharing a small hillock with Charlie Brown when it comes to amateur nephrology (the old term for studying clouds), I once made a detour on the way home from work when I saw a cloud in the shape of a Highland Terrier crossing the road ahead of me because it appeared to chasing a map of Wales which, if you are also of a certain age, you were told fairly early on in your school career was a pig being carried under the left arm of a man when you look at a map of Great Britain.

The benefits of having a lounge window that faces south west are several not least of which is the opportunity for most of the spring and summer to watch clouds drifting north and eastwards as part of the prevailing weather pattern. It was therefore a source of pride that this week the pastime of cloud watching should combine with the carrying of a pig by a man into a cloud the shape of the British Isles.

The photograph above was taken over Coventry last week on an  I-Phone by a 23 year old, called Amy, who said it made her feel proud to be British - ah, the simplest and best things in life really are free.

What should make Amy feel even more proud is the knowledge that it was an Englishman, Luke Howard who, in 1802, came up with the cloud naming system that is still used today - no, not duckie or horsie but the use of latin to describe  firstly the height and secondly the shape of clouds. So we have prefixes for heights:cirro, high clouds above 20,000 feet (6,250 meters), alto and mid level clouds between 6,000 - 20,000 feet (1,875 - 6,250 meters). There is no prefix for low level clouds. The names denoting shapes are:cirrus mean curly or fibrous, stratus means layered, while cumulus means lumpy or piled. Nimbo is added to indicate that a cloud can produce precipitation.

What seems strange is that before Howard decided on this form of naming, clouds were thought of as 'essences' floating around and nobody apparently had any idea of the relationship between the type of cloud formation and the weather it might be bringing. Howard's name is largely forgotten today, despite the fact that he is regarded as the father of modern meteorology thanks in no small part to his extensive and exhaustive record of weather in London from 1801 to 1841. Incidentally what would make Amy even more proud is that Howard's naming system was adopted rather than one proposed by a Frenchman because, and here comes a certain irony, he choose to use Latin based words.

                                                       7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham

Howard also had an impact on the romantic poets and the arts from Shelley to Goethe. In fact it wouldn't be that far fetched to say that whilst many people are not aware or even have reason to care about his work in the field of cloud naming his legacy has lived on for more than two hundred years in the way that clouds are depicted in oil paintings, a result of John Constable incorporating Howard's studies of clouds into his landscapes.

Anyway, time to get back to Stalin looking over the island of Crete.


Span Ows said...

I imagine that if I said I preffered nimbos when I do nephrology I'd have a baying mob of tabloid readers with pitchforks breaking down my gate.

Great info on Luke Howard etc by the coin a phrase, I never knew that

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