Top 22 Fascinating, Unusual Cloud Formations

By Susan Dorling | 2021 Guide

Who doesn’t love clouds? So many of us can relate to the feeling of laying down on our rooftop when the sun is just about to set and see how beautiful the sky looks as sunshine passes through gaps of clouds.

Not only is that view breathtaking but beautiful and charming in its way. We often sit with our friends and see how weirdly some clouds are shaped. In the end, we just laugh it off and don’t think about it ever again.

But, some cloud formations have made headlines. They are so popular that you will find a lot of information about them online and rightly so.

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There is nothing that science can’t explain. What are clouds? Why are they there? What purpose do they serve? If there is anything that grade 4 science has taught us, it is that clouds are made up of dry air and tiny water droplets also are known as moisture and the water cycle explains their formation.

Another cool and fun fact about clouds is that they are not completely useless. Besides providing us with a beautiful view, they balance the earth’s temperature by absorbing heat. Not only this, clouds trap the heat inside them and send it to outer space. So yes, having a cloud-free sky is not only boring but signifies the effects of global warming.

So, here is a list of 22 Fascinating and Unusual Cloud Formations that are meant to amaze you.

22. Lenticular Clouds

Lenticular Clouds are shaped like a UFO, some people compare them to the shape of a saucer. These clouds are formed when winds hit a mountain which causes the clouds to form a wave-like structure. These clouds look dense and stationary, disappearing when the clouds take on the downwind side.

Many types of Lenticular Clouds are classified on the form of shape they incur. Lenticular Clouds are formed with the help of a little bit of moisture, slightly stable air and fast winds. Clouds like these are formed at the lowest layer of earth (troposphere).

So, what do lenticular clouds indicate? The next you spot a lenticular cloud, prepare yourself to experience a wave of fast and unstable air.

21. Night Shining Clouds

The Night Shining Clouds are also known as Noctilucent Clouds which are breathtaking in view. The word “Noctilucent” means “Night Shining” in Latin. Contrary to what you think, these clouds don’t shine at night time. Instead, they are fairly visible at twilight.

Night Shining Clouds are formed at the Upper Atmosphere (Mesosphere) and are only visible during summer. These clouds are formed when cold air is high up in the atmosphere which is weird as they form only in summers. This is because these clouds form at the mesosphere where the air is cold even during summer.

But, according to a study by NASA it has been revealed that night shining clouds are appearing more than usual and it is all because of climate change.

These clouds are fairly visible when Sun is just about to be set or rise that is either twilight or roughly an hour before dawn. Because the sunlight illuminates these clouds at twilight at dawn is why we can see them at that particular time.

20. Shelf Clouds

A Shelf Cloud is practically a thunderstorm in disguise which is why you should worry when you see one of these. As the name suggests, these clouds are spread over the entire sky and form very low on the atmosphere.

Shelf clouds are usually followed by fast, cold gushing winds which are then followed by heavy rain. What happens is that when chilled air forms a cloud and then meets warm air, shelf clouds are created.

The lower part of Shelf Clouds consists of cold air which is slightly curved while the upper part consists of warm air. In case of a heavy thunderstorm, a shelf cloud may also appear to look like an approaching tornado. Shelf Clouds are equally terrifying and beautiful to watch.

19. Morning Glory

Morning Glory Clouds are thick and formed in a long line which can be observed in very few parts of the world. They are not only beautiful and unique but a popular tourist spot for adrenaline seekers.

Morning Glory Clouds are found mostly in Queensland. To be more precise, these are mostly seen in the Cape York Peninsula because of the mechanism that makes them appear in the first place. The wind that comes from both directions (East and West) when combines with the moisture present in gulf create this spectacular phenomenon known as Morning Glory.

Morning Glory Clouds are commonly found in a cylindrical shape that can cover the horizon up to 1000 kilometers. People from all around the world come to Australia to glide over these clouds. The fact that these clouds are not seen as often proves that they have little to no significance in the atmosphere.  

18. Polar Stratospheric Clouds

Polar Stratospheric Clouds are formed in winters. These clouds are commonly referred to as “Mother of Pearl” because of the beautiful glowing shades they exhibit after formation. As pretty as they look, the PSC is not meant to be good for the environment.

That is because these clouds act as a medium that transports CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) into the atmosphere which is responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer. “Nature is deadly” is something that is truly meant for these clouds as their presence indicates climate change. Researches have also revealed that these clouds do destroy the ozone layer.

Since these clouds are formed at a very cold temperature that is around -85 degrees Celsius, it is not surprising that these clouds are formed in the Antarctic. The moisture in these clouds are ice particles when the sun shines passes through these ice particles, the process of diffraction creates the glowy light effect.

17. The Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Cloud

The Kelvin-Helmholtz Wave Cloud as indicated by its name, are clouds that form a wave-like structure. This cloud is very common and you can easily spot these clouds on a windy day. Also known as “Billow Clouds”, “Sheer Clouds”

These clouds are named after Lord Kelvin and Helmholtz because these two physicists described the phenomenon that occurs when these clouds are formed. That phenomenon is known as sheer velocity. When a fast-moving hot air meets cool air from opposite and horizontal direction then the hot air is responsible for making the wave-like structure while cold air slows down the movement of the bottom part of the cloud.

These clouds are not rare but appear for a limited period. These clouds act as an indicator for the pilots to not take off due to turbulence (the instability of air in the atmosphere). Many people believe that these clouds are present in Vincent Van Gogh’s starry night which is amazing.

16. Virga

Virga is simply rain that doesn’t touch the ground. Have you seen when a Dementor sucks a soul out of a living being? That’s exactly what a Virga shower looks like. Virga is not exactly a cloud but rather a part of a cloud.

It is very common to observe Virga falling from several clouds such as Altocumulus, Cirrocumulus, Nimbostratus, and Cumulonimbus. Virga is made when drops from a cloud pass dry air, the molecules of water are compromised which in turn creates this wonderful phenomenon.

When the precipitation falls and passes through the dry air, the water molecules evaporate and this is why it is known as rain that doesn’t reach the ground.  

A virga is usually observable in hot weather and places like deserts. A virga may either cause a microburst that is dangerous to the environment or it may cause a heat burst that changes in temperature in a matter of a few minutes.

15. Altocumulus undulates

The Latin word “Unda” means “wave”. Altocumulus Undulates are clouds that are elongated lines of small waves. When a powder-like substance spills over, it creates “ripples” on the ground, ACU clouds look exactly like that.

The reason why these ripples form is when moisture in the air passes through the cold air. The cold air due to high pressure resists this interference as a result of which ripples are formed. The clouds are formed when air has risen from the water molecules. Naturally, air and moisture find a system to pass through each other in a zig-zag alternating motion that causes these clouds to form. These types of clouds are formed worldwide as there is no temperature restriction.

The presence of these clouds is not exactly alarming, it just indicates that the air is unstable at the moment. Though, these clouds might be an indication of rain.  

14. Mackerel Sky Clouds

The name “Mackerel” is due to the unique shape of these clouds which resemble Mackerel fish. These clouds are formed when the air in the atmosphere moves in a falling and then rising manner. You can observe these clouds from anywhere in the world as they are an indication of changing the weather.

These clouds form a series of clouds that look like a fish’s gills hence the name Mackerel.

Whether the weather change is going to be good or bad depends on the type of clouds that the Mackerel Sky Clouds produce that are Altocumulus and Cirrocumulus.  

An altocumulus mackerel sky appears to be more dense and thick whereas a cirrocumulus mackerel sky appears to be more of fog-like light cloud. Altocumulus Mackerel Sky means that the sky will be clear in a few minutes and the weather will be pleasant whereas a cirrocumulus mackerel sky usually means bad news and heavy rain.

13. Mammatus Clouds

Mammatus Clouds are in my opinion the most beautiful and fascinating of all the clouds I have ever seen before. The exact reason why are they are formed and what’s the mechanism behind their formation is not exactly explained by researchers but, it is known that gradual changes in temperature cause Mammatus Clouds to form.

The person who observed the Mammatus Clouds for the first time compared them to mammary glands hence they got the name “Mammatus” which is quite interesting. Mammatus Clouds vary in shapes and sizes, they can be very large and denser-looking and they can be small and short-lived as well.

Mammatus clouds are an indication of heavy rainfall, hailing, and lightning which is bad weather. This is due to the unstable air present in the atmosphere.

12. Cirrostratus Clouds

Cirrostratus Clouds can cover the entire sky and give it a milky appearance. They are thin, transparent and made up of ice crystals. Their thin appearance makes it easy for the sun or moon to shine through them so there is a high possibility that you may not notice these clouds as they can be barely seen.

You can observe a halo and beautiful streaks of light when the sun shines through these clouds as they have ice crystals. Slow rising air is what causes the formation of the Cirrostratus cloud.

These clouds can help in predicting the weather up to the next 24 hours and is usually an indication of rain or snow. Cirrostratus Clouds look like a layer of very thin cotton that is spread over a horizon.

11. Asperitas

These aren’t your normal Undulates Clouds. According to Wikipedia, Asperitas Clouds were recently discovered in 2009 and named “asperitas” by the Cloud Appreciation Society. They are very thick, dense and shaped like a thunderstorm. They look terrifyingly beautiful which is what caught everyone’s attention in the first place.

The air must be unstable if asperitas are to be formed. Many people have argued over the cause of their existence but no one is certain. It is said that they are formed after a thunderstorm as aftermath while others suggest that their formation is because of a pre-existing cloud called Mammatus cloud.

The reason why Asperitas stand out from every other cloud is because of its intensity and the dramatic effect it has on the environment, if you look at asperitas directly you will think as if you are watching a high quality animated movie. These clouds look all mighty and scary to the extent that you’d think a storm is coming but they almost always disappear before that.  

10. Fall Streak Whole Clouds

A fallstreak cloud is more commonly known as Whole Punch Cloud because of the way it’s shaped. When you see a massive gap or hole in the center of a series of clouds, know that it is a fallstreak cloud. It isn’t the massive gap between clouds but the fact that clouds are pouring from that gap or hole is what makes a fallstreak whole cloud so special and magnificent.

 The reason as to why fallstreak whole clouds are formed is rather interesting and simple. The water droplets present have a temperature that is perfect for freezing but needs a medium or a reaction to freeze these droplets. When something like a plane or winds passes through these droplets, the water freezes and as a result falls.

As a result, only a few clouds will tend to freeze and fall which makes a hole in the cloud. These clouds are truly a treat to watch and make you wonder at what other surprises nature holds for us. 

09. Flammagenitus Clouds

Flammagenitus Clouds is unofficially and more commonly known as “pyrocumulus”. These clouds look like smoke and are formed due to various heat eruptions. The recent wildfires of amazon, Texas, and California have given rise to the formation of these clouds.

The name “Flammagenitus” refers to “flames” and is named because of the reason they occur. It formed when the hot air and huge amounts of smoke are released into the air. Some people say that this cloud is nature’s way of turning something disastrous into something beautiful.

Because of the smoke, these clouds are usually brown, grey or black which most people confuse for a thunderstorm or heavy rain.  Flammagenitus clouds are an indication of a thunderstorm and usually results in heavy rain.  

08. Cumulonimbus Clouds

Cumulonimbus Clouds look like a mushroom and are easily recognizable due to their shape. They are magnificent in size and often look like an alien space ship. These clouds formed are an indication of heavy rainfall, lightning, and storm. This is why these clouds are also known as thunderstorm clouds.

They are formed due to the process of convection which translates to “transfer of heat” so we can say that a lot of energy is produced and released when these clouds are formed as they are huge.

There are several types of Cumulonimbus clouds that are categorized based on their shape. Cumulonimbus clouds are known to produce high precipitation which is why heavy rainfall is a norm after seeing these clouds. Not only are these clouds fairly close to the ground but dangerous as well, as these clouds are famous for producing lightning inside them.  

07. Contrail Clouds

Contrail Clouds are caused by airplanes. I am not referring to the airplanes that the general public uses to travel but aviation and military planes. You may have often seen in movies how there seems to be a trail of clouds behind these fast-moving military planes. These trail of clouds are formed on the spot and are known are contrail clouds.

These planes are hated by environmentalists for producing air pollution and rightly so but there is another product that these planes leave behind which are these contrail clouds. Contrail clouds are formed when these fast-moving planes give the moisture in atmosphere fast-moving air and thus freezing those droplets which create this trail.

These clouds do not affect the weather but they are considered very harmful for the environment as they contribute to global warming. So the next time you go to an air show and marvel at the beauty of these clouds and those air jets, keep in mind that breathing in the next few decades might become difficult due to these clouds.

06. Roll Clouds

We have heard of siblings among people but some clouds have siblings too. A roll cloud is also a type of arcus cloud and very similar to shelf clouds, so similar that you can call them siblings. Roll clouds are very rare, watching them is like watching a very long tunnel.

These clouds form a straight horizontal line and keep on rolling about its axis. A roll cloud is formed when warm moist air rises and then cools down. These clouds are so rare that it may be possible that you go on your entire life without ever seeing one. Roll Clouds are very different from other clouds in terms of features and they are formed near a cold front.  

It is possible to get confused about whether the cloud is a roll cloud or a funnel cloud because of the similarity in shape but majorly it is funnel cloud because of the rare existence of the formation of a roll cloud.

These clouds may form because of a storm but don’t necessarily indicate a change in weather as these clouds are not connected to the ground.

05. Anvil Clouds

An anvil cloud is a type of cumulonimbus cloud that is also called “cumulonimbus incus”. It is large and flat at the top while forming a cone shape as you go down to the bottom. The name “anvil” refers to the shape of the cloud that resembles an instrument used by industrial workers.

These clouds are made up of ice particles and are formed because of unstable air by the process of convection. The air rises and if it finds moisture at high altitudes at which the air gets cooler and then spreads out.

These clouds can easily be spotted on any hot summer day. Also, these clouds are considered dangerous because of the type of lighting they produce. Hailing, strong winds, and storms are some dangerous features of these clouds.

04. Pileus Cloud

More famously known as “scarf cloud” or “cap cloud”, this cloud is a special type of cloud that forms among other clouds such as cumulonimbus and cumulus. They can be observed on the top of mountains and they are formed when air is forced to rise at a very high level.

You can see various colors peeking through a pileus cloud as the sun shines through it. These clouds are an indicator of very rough weather which is why if you see one, prepare for strong and fast winds and keep yourself safe.

03. Fog Bow

A very beautiful and rare phenomenon was first observed by a UK photographer named Melvin Nicholson who captured a rainbow but with no colors. This thing was later named to be fog bow as it looks like fog and shaped like a rainbow.

The reason why this cloud doesn’t emit colors is because of the size of moisture droplets is very small. Although a fog bow isn’t specifically classified as a cloud, it looks like one and contains all the features that a cloud possesses.

02. Waterspout

A waterspout is a phenomenon that occurs at the top of a water body. It is terrifying to look at but that’s the beauty of it. The clouds that make this phenomenon possible can be of any size, it doesn’t matter how small or big they are.

A waterspout is formed when the wind changes its direction from horizontal to vertical when rising. Usually, a waterspout is formed in five stages. They start from the bottom (the water surface) by appearing as a light-colored disk that takes on a spiral pattern and then forms a ring in the water. Following this, they turn upwards and hence are formed at a visibly low level. It is a common myth that the water inside this waterspout is seawater but it was later revealed to be cloud spray which is why a waterspout appears to be foggier.

A waterspout’s only destructive feature is that it can turn into a tornado which it will if it’s a tornado spout.  

01. Cirrus Clouds

Cirrus Clouds are usually followed by cirrostratus clouds. These clouds tell us the direction of air and are most commonly found on an average spring day. These clouds are found at a high level of almost 6000 meters above ground and are made up of ice crystals which explains why they are formed so high above ground level.

These clouds look like cotton balls made up of ice and shaped like a horse’s tail. They are thin but denser-looking with little effect on the temperature. Imagine dripping your hand in a bowl full of ink and then using your fingers to draw straight lines on a piece of paper, the lines will spread blurry and the ink will spread over the paper, this is exactly what Cirrus Clouds look like.

Cirrus Clouds creates precipitation which doesn’t reach the ground because of the long-distance it evaporates. Moreover, these clouds are an indication of heavy rain so you better prepare yourself if you spot its trail anywhere.

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