Understanding Clouds

Always present yet constantly changing, clouds are a kind of global “language” of the skies, offering cues to what is happening in the atmosphere. Regardless of where in the world we live, it is easy to recognize fluffy white clouds floating through a blue sky on a sunny day or dark, ominous thunderheads building as a warning of stormy weather. Clouds play an integral role in balancing Earth’s energy, shaping the global distribution of water resources and influencing local and global climate and weather. They are central to forecasting weather conditions, modelling the impacts of future climate change and predicting the availability of water resources. 

The theme of World Meteorological Day on 23 March 2017 was Understanding Clouds. Along with acknowledging the importance of the science behind understanding clouds and their impact on our Earth systems, World Meteorological Day provided an opportunity to celebrate the inherent beauty and aesthetic appeal of clouds that has inspired artists, poets, musicians, photographers and countless other enthusiasts throughout history. 

The day also marked the release of the revised edition of the International Cloud Atlas - the single most authoritative and comprehensive reference for identifying clouds. First published in the late 19th century and last revised 30 years ago, the Atlas - available digitally for the first time - includes images, classification details and information about clouds and other weather phenomena such as rainbows and hailstones.

Watching the clouds in the sky sparks both imagination and inquiry, and offers an easily accessible, interactive and relevant way to engage students in science, language and visual arts. Browse the ideas and resources below for teaching about clouds.

Additional information and educational resources:

World Meteorological Day posters, brochure and cloud identification charts

Lessons, educator resources and videos in English and Spanish from the PBS NOVA Labs Cloud Lab website

Fun Facts – Clouds from the Irish Meteorological Service

Clouds information page from Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The Importance of Understanding Clouds from NASA

Education Resources>Weather>Clouds from Hong Kong Observatory

Clouds for Kids from the UK Met Office

Cloud chart available in English, French and Spanish versions or in Arabic, Chinese and Russian versions from GLOBE Program

Online activities and lesson plans from UCAR Center for Science Education

Picture book: The Clouds Outside My Window from U.S. National Weather Service