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Sunday, August 14, 2022

I have looked at clouds that way

There’s something to be said about watching clouds change colour.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
August 28, 2016 1:20:49 am
Go out, stand, and stare Go out, stand, and stare

Every year, it held you in its thrall and you watched, almost hypnotised. Far away, where the sea met the sky, a dark-grey belt would stretch right across the horizon. Gradually, it came nearer like a very disciplined, approaching army, till you could see the skittish silvery showers preceding it and felt a cool brisk breeze on your face. Suddenly, the sun went out and a deep-grey shadow passed over, but one that made you feel very buoyant because now the air was charged with negative ions, which, they say, make you happy. And then the rain sluiced down, solidly and you had no idea whether it would last an hour or three days.

From the whole of central Bombay (as it was then), a roar of welcome, accompanied by the beating of tin drums, would rise up the cliffside as the monsoon would be ushered in for yet another year. The clouds that rolled in from the sea were the colour of dark granite and appeared newly minted. The clouds that herald the rains here in Delhi, alas, seem to have a murky brownish tinge to them, like a dirty past, which makes you wonder what kind of rain is going to fall and whether it is a good idea to go out and dance, with your face upturned and mouth wide open, like urchins everywhere do.

But clouds everywhere (except maybe in the UK and other Western countries where they’re perpetually whining about clouds and rain because it’s drizzling all the time) have made artists, poets, lyricists and ordinary people wax eloquent, and occasionally, behave very idiotically indeed. There’s nothing quite like going up to the mountains and waiting for clouds to come a-visiting, right through your windows.

They come in myriad shapes and sizes and have been categorised according to the altitude they lie at, though for a lay person on the ground, gauging altitude might prove to be somewhat challenging (It might be easier to recognise the clouds by their shapes and then guess the altitude). They’re formed when warm air containing water vapour rises from the ground, cools and expands and then condenses (into water or ice) on a tiny nucleus: a speck of dust, or even the exhaust gases from motor vehicles. When many billions or trillions of these tiny droplets come together, you get a visible cloud. When they all get too heavy to hold things together, they fall as rain — or snow.

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The three highest flyers (18,000 feet and above) are the cirrus, the cirrostratus and cirrocumulus. Cirrus clouds are those wispy and feathery white streamers in the sky, composed of ice crystals and cheerfully predict fair weather. Cirrostratus clouds generally tend to cover the entire sky like a sheet of thin off-white muslin, through which you can still see the sun or moon, and they predict rain or snowstorms within the next 12 to 24 hours. Cirrocumulus look like little puffs of popcorn that appear in long rows and in tropical areas may predict stormy weather.

Floating below them, at between 18,000 and 6,500 feet, are the alto stratus and alto cumulus. Alto stratus are deep blue or gunmetal clouds that again cover the entire sky and usually form before a storm and continuous rain. Alto cumulus are grey puffed-up clouds bunched together in groups and may predict thunderstorms.

Below these, are the low, puffy and grey stratocumulus which tend to line up in rows with strips of blue sky peeping from in between them, and which can turn into nimbostratus which form a dark grey layer blotting out the sky and which indicate continuous rain. Cumulus clouds pile up high, like heads of cauliflower and are usually white and predict fair weather. But they can turn into giant cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds, with flat, anvil shaped tops and which indicate heavy rain and stormy times.


I usually find it difficult to figure out exactly what kind of clouds are up there at any given point of time, because it really looks very confusing and amorphous, with a mish-mash of several different types of cloud all jostling and melding together. I guess one’s attitude towards clouds depends largely on where one lives. Those in the dusty arid plains will look at the looming granite masses with eager expectation and upturned faces; those who live in the hills and mountains with a little trepidation, knowing and thinking, no doubt, about flash floods and landslides and will batten down the hatches. But a thunderstorm is always exhilarating (provided the lightning is at a safe distance), what with forked tongues of high-voltage electricity scissoring the sky, or arcing from cloud to cloud, followed by, perhaps a sharp ear-splitting crack or low, earth-shaking rumble of thunder. Thunder is really just a sonic boom much like that caused by supersonic aircrafts. The lightning superheats the air around it, leading to its rapid expansion which creates a shock wave. Thunder travels at around 1 km every three seconds, whereas lightning can be taken as instantaneous (because the distances are so small), so you can calculate how far away a storm is quite easily.

But, no matter how hard it is to identify clouds, it’s worth watching them for their own sake and the moods they can evoke. They can be dark, glowering and brooding; angry and troubled as a tormented lover, or of blank gunmetal uniformity surrounding everything as the rain pours down relentlessly for hours on end; or huge puffs of snowy popcorn boiling and roiling high up over the mountains or patterned fleecy wisps, miles high like the breast feathers of a bird, light and airy. As the sun comes up, or goes down, they take on colours: peach, gold, silver, orange, flaming red, lilac, and a million shades in between.

So don’t just sit indoors reading this — go out, stand and stare.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.

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First published on: 28-08-2016 at 01:20:49 am
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