Academic journal article Science Scope

Clear Skies Ahead! Clearing Up Confusion about Clouds

Academic journal article Science Scope

Clear Skies Ahead! Clearing Up Confusion about Clouds

Article excerpt

One salient aspect of meteorology is the notion that current atmospheric conditions can provide insight into future weather events. A prominent feature of atmospheric conditions that can be easily observed by students of all ages is clouds. There are a wide variety of cloud types that can be observed, and certain cloud types tend to correspond to other observable weather events (Bryson 2004). However, we have observed that many students and teachers find it challenging to distinguish among common cloud characteristics, such as physical description, elevation, and precipitation, which can be useful in helping to predict future weather events.

Without the need for expensive observation equipment, students can easily walk outside their classroom, look up, and learn from the clouds they see in the sky. Through using a semi-dichotomous key to differentiate among subtle variations in physical descriptions, elevation, and precipitation, and then analyzing descriptive observations of the sequential change in cloud types over a six-hour time span, students can forecast future weather events. These forecasts become more accurate when students also incorporate weather variables such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind direction, and precipitation.

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In this article, we present an inquiry-based approach to facilitate student understanding of the differences among common cloud descriptive characteristics through the use of a semidichotomous key developed by a former West Virginia state climatologist. We also demonstrate how students can analyze common class data sets that describe the outcomes from the semidichotomous key throughout a school day to predict future weather events. Whereas other approaches to teaching about common cloud descriptive characteristics have relied on the identification of various cloud types through the use of pictures, this approach is novel in that we present a semi-dichotomous key with tangible descriptions to help students differentiate among subtle variations in physical characteristics. Furthermore, student analysis of common class data sets that describe the sequential change in cloud types over relatively short periods of time are then used to develop hypotheses about the changes in atmospheric conditions that may follow such observations.

Common cloud descriptive characteristics

Clouds can be easily identified by students with an understanding of the interaction of three common cloud descriptive characteristics: physical description (what it looks like), elevation (how high it is), and the presence of precipitation (whether it's raining or snowing). These three common cloud descriptive characteristics are interrelated and provide the basis for the naming convention of clouds. In order for students to observe the sequential change in cloud types to predict future weather events, they need to be able to distinguish among common cloud descriptive characteristics and analyze the transitions between cloud types over a six-hour time span. Moreover, developing student understanding of the interaction among the three common cloud descriptive characteristics will help to provide them with all the essential pieces required to identify all the major cloud types.

Common cloud naming convention

The Latin-based naming convention of clouds is based on Luke Howard's description of common cloud types (Howard 1833). Cirrus clouds look wispy, like a curl of hair or a horse's tail; stratus clouds are spread out, flat, or layered; and cumulus are heaped, puffy, or bumpy (see Figure 1). Clouds can also have different base elevations (see Figure 2). High clouds, with an elevation above 5,000 meters, utilize the cirro- or cirrusnaming convention (i.e., cirrus, cirrostratus, cirrocumulus). Middle clouds, with an elevation between 2,000 and 5,000 meters, utilize the altonaming convention (i.e., altostratus, altocumulus). Low base clouds, with an elevation below 2,000 meters, utilize the stratus, strata-, or cumulus naming convention (i. …

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