Clouds are for Everyone

Although it’s still winter, there are signs that spring is on its way. A week of unseasonably warm weather made me start a gardening project in February and we’ll be making maple syrup before too long. Like most years, I slipped into a bit of a funk starting sometime in November, which lasted into January. I think I fought it less this year, allowing myself to be lazy, to hibernate, and to explore winter in new ways—very slowly, and generally on snowshoes. By late January, I felt my energy start to go back up.

Light is a tremendous part of this. I definitely get a little bit S.A.D. in the winter with the short days. By late January, the days are lengthening so that there is some daylight left after work—enough that it’s easier to go snowshoeing or skiing, and a headlamp is optional rather than required.

But I think that the change in light conditions has as much to do with clouds as a longer day length. The clouds are much different now than during the darkest days of winter. Rather than the constant, overcast gray clouds that bring the lake-effect snow, there are more white, patchy, billowy clouds that let the sunshine be visible during the day.

I just finished reading The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the the Cloud Appreciation Society. It’s a great book, and I definitely recommend you check it out, as it described the major types of clouds and conditions under which they form.

One time I was in southern Illinois in the spring and participating a competition to identify trees. I had no idea what one was and so I just wrote down “the tree with pretty pink flowers.” Of course, that was not the correct answer,  and all of the foresters from southern states giggled that us northerners were so clueless to not know such an obvious tree (it was a redbud, and I’ve never forgotten it since). That pretty much sums us my relationship with clouds: I’ve known that there is a difference between the fluffy white clouds and the thick gray ones and the patchy pretty ones that look really nice at sunset—but I could never tell you what they were called (stratus? nimbus? the ones that look like animals… Der…).

But now I know the different clouds… or at least I am learning them, and have a better appreciation for them.

I went to the cottage over the week to continue my tree-cutting project. It was about 20ºF and cloudy, with a bit of lake-effect snow falling. There was a strong wind from, oddly, the southwest that was blowing right in my face as I was cutting trees. It was not the most pleasant day to be out, but I was already at the property and figured I should cut at least one or two trees down. I cut most of the smaller trees already and upgraded to a larger saw for the remaining big trees, so each tree takes longer.

I was cutting down one tree, about 14 inches in diameter. While sawing, I was thinking about how boring it was to saw this tree, about how sluggish I felt, and about how my arms got tired after a few minutes. I stopped to take a break, and looked up to see the sunlight start to peek through the clouds.

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Of course, pictures never look as nice as in real life.

I’ve been thinking that lake-effect snow clouds, our most common winter clouds that can cover the sky for days and days, are probably status clouds—the low-lying, formless clouds that are essentially a layer of thick fog only a few thousand feet in the sky. It was nice that the sun was visible at all, a sign that the strong winds were breaking up the cloud layer. I watched the wind move the clouds around a while, the patch of sunlight moving accordingly, and then when back to sawing. When I was ready to leave, the clouds had opened more to allow more beams of sunlight through.

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This is an exciting amount of sun in the winter sky.

The sky continued to open, and by the time I trudged back to my car, there were even patches of blue sky. The wind and warmer temperatures had changed the clouds. I’m still learning, but I think these new clouds were probably stratocumulus—large, billowly rolls of clouds that are half-way between the thick, shapeless stratus clouds and the cotton balls of white fluff that are cumulus clouds.

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Meh. Another blurry photo… Sorry about that!

During the past few years I’ve really been trying to spend more time appreciating nature (which is really where this blog comes from), and I think one of the biggest changes that I’ve made is that I’m routinely paying more attention to the sky whenever I’m outside, even at night. I spent a lot of time last fall looking at the sky and enjoying the clouds in general, and that was nice. Now I’m looking forward to looking at the clouds with a bit more knowledge, and expecting that I’ll appreciate them even more.

What do your clouds look like?

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