10 Surprising Facts About Clouds And Their Role In Climate Change

Picture by: Bhavika Sharma

What do you know about clouds? Most of us know the basics. Large white fluffy things that hang about in the sky. Hold rain. Ruin summer picnics, that sort of thing. But there's more, so much more to know. Here are 10 surprising facts about clouds and their role in climate change 

1. Clouds were first classified by Englishman Luke Howard in 1793. He delivered what is now considered a seminal paper on the phenomenon, which used Latin terms to define the different types of clouds in the sky. Cumulus means ‘heap’ in Latin, stratus means ‘layer’ and cirrus ‘curl’. Those wispy clouds he called nimbus for ‘rain’. 

2. The average speed of a cloud is around 50 km/h (30 mph), which means they can outrun rush hour traffic, but they can travel as fast as 160 km/h (100 mph) at higher altitudes.  Small wonder then that it’s hard to predict their movement and impact. 

3. Clouds can actually influence weather patterns. They can cause or prevent precipitation from forming, impact air temperature, and even create wind patterns. They are much more than just the passive sign of shifting weather patterns that people take for granted.

4. Clouds hugely reduce the effectiveness of solar panels - reducing the amount of electricity generated to a fifth of what could be generated on a clear-sky day.  But they don’t reduce it to nothing, as diffuse light still passes through the cloud.  

5. But…..for short periods, broken cloudy days can deliver more solar energy than a clear day. This is because when the sun’s rays hit the panel directly through a gap in the clouds, light also can bounce off the reflective sides of nearby clouds, amplifying the solar radiation hitting the panel.  Since clouds are made up of tiny droplets of water or ice crystals, they can be highly reflective.  

6. The massive cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds can weigh up to 500,000 kilograms, more than a fully loaded Boeing 747 passenger jet. 

7. The amount of clouds on Earth has changed over time due to climate change. The number has increased since 1980 due to higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane trapping more heat in the atmosphere. 

8. Different types of clouds have different effects on the climate system: low-level clouds reflect more sunlight than high-level clouds but trap more heat; high-altitude cirrus clouds are thin but trap more heat than thicker lower-level stratus clouds; cumulus clouds can cause more evaporation than other types of cloud; and nimbostratus clouds cause rain which cools down the surface temperature when it falls as precipitation. 

9. A single cumulonimbus can contain as much energy as ten atomic bombs that were exploded over Hiroshima. 

10. Contrails - the trails behind jet engines - can turn into cirrus clouds under some conditions, which cause a significant amount of additional global warming.