Dr. Universe explains clouds

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education column from Washington State University.

  • Thursday, January 24, 2019 12:03pm
  • Life
Illustrations by Rob McClurkan

Illustrations by Rob McClurkan

Dr. Universe: What do clouds do? – Desi, 9, Maryland

Dear Desi,

If you’re anything like me, you like to watch the clouds go by in the sky. Even though some clouds might look like they are just floating around up there, they can do quite a lot for our planet.

The first thing to know about clouds is they are made up of tiny water droplets, ice crystals, or a mix of both—and there are many different kinds of clouds.

There are white and puffy cumulus clouds, thin and wispy cirrus clouds, and tall nimbostratus clouds that stretch high up in to the sky. Believe it or not, when you walk through fog, you are walking through a kind of cloud that’s touching the ground.

I learned about clouds from my friend Von P. Walden, an atmospheric researcher at Washington State University.

One thing clouds can do is move, Walden said. Some clouds move slow, while others— like the clouds of a spinning hurricane—can move about 100 mph. As clouds move, they transport water around our planet.

The clouds above North America are usually moving from the west to the east, Walden said. A lot of the water that makes up clouds comes from the Pacific Ocean.

As the water on the surface of the ocean warms up, tiny water molecules rise into the atmosphere to help form clouds. When the water particles that make up clouds get heavy enough, they will sometimes fall down to earth in the form of rain or snow. When that water falls, we can use it for various things.

We might use it to water plants for food. We can also use water to generate energy from dams for our homes and schools. We sometimes drink it or swim in it. Clouds can also cool us by reflecting sunlight back to space.

It had been raining the morning I went to visit Walden, but the sun was finally starting to shine. He noticed a small rainbow out the window.

We see rainbows when light moves through water droplets and the rays of light scatter around. It’s pretty rare, but sometimes we can spot a phenomenon called a rainbow cloud. These clouds occur very high in the atmosphere. Instead of being white or gray, the cloud is all the colors of the rainbow, or iridescent.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Palouse in Washington state, we have some great clouds. But really, you can watch clouds from anywhere on our planet.

What clouds do you see in your neighborhood? Can you draw their shapes? While investigating your question, I also learned that nephelococcygia is the act of seeking and finding shapes in the clouds. You can keep track of your observations with a pen and paper. Do you notice any patterns about the clouds? How fast do they move? Keep your eye to the sky and share what you discover at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@rentonreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.rentonreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Life

Johlesa Orm is a senior at Lindbergh High School and will be honored as part of the 2022 WA State STEM Signing Day, sponsored by Boeing.
Guest column: Using computer science to solve big problems

By Johlesa Orm, For the Renton Reporter

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE
Car review: 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE

By Larry Lark, contributor Hatchbacks are all about versatility and fun. The… Continue reading

2021 Mazda CX-30 Crossover
Car review: 2021 Mazda CX-30 Crossover

By Larry Lark, contributor The Mazda CX-30 Crossover made its North American… Continue reading

2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
Car review: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

By Larry Lark, contributor The Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport full-size SUV has… Continue reading

2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport
Car review: 2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport

By Larry Lark, contributor The 2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport is… Continue reading

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS
Car review: 2021 Chevy Trailblazer RS

By Larry Lark, contributor Chevy’s 2021 Trailblazer is an entry-level, compact SUV… Continue reading

2022 Telluride Nightfall Edition
Car review: 2022 Kia Telluride

By Larry Lark, contributor Big, bold and boxy, that’s the newly tweaked… Continue reading

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland
Car review: 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland

By Larry Lark, contributor With almost 30 years and four generations under… Continue reading

2022 Mini Cooper S 2-door. Courtesy photo
Car review: 2022 Mini Cooper S 2-door

By Larry Lark, contributor They don’t come around very often, but when… Continue reading

2022 Infiniti QX60 Autograph
Car review: 2022 Infiniti QX60 Autograph

By Larry Lark, contributor If you want your SUV to make a… Continue reading

2021 Genesis GV80 Prestige
Car review: 2021 Genesis GV80 Prestige

By Larry Lark, contributor Genesis is branching out. With the introduction of… Continue reading