Non-fiction reads are usually a labour of love for me. I start them in a fit of passion and enthusiasm, that then waxes and wanes with my mood, time and other interests.
My interest started when I was about 10. I was required to do a project on the cloud types for school. At the time, I had an uncle who worked for the water board. One of his daily duties was to check the meteorological equipment. He provided me with sheets of information about clouds. I’ve always loved sorting and classifying stuff, so my 10 yr old self was amazed, then impressed that someone, or multiple someone’s, had watched the clouds for so long that there was now a whole system of precise classification and labelling for me to learn.
Pretor-Pinney has created a lovely looking book for those of us devoted to gazing at the skies. The book aims to provide the facts about ‘all the delightful and eccentric characters in the cloud family‘ for the general reader. He has included poems and charts and pictures in a glorious ‘celebration of the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloudspotting.’
There is a cloudspotter’s Manifesto and lovely wood engravings gracing the first page of each chapter by Bill Sanderson. Myths, legends, religious beliefs and stories about clouds are littered throughout the facts and figures.
I learnt a lot too.
- For instance, there’s the incredible story of Lt-Col William Rankin, a pilot who had to eject from his plane at a height of 47 000 ft, to only get stuck with his parachute and light-weight summer clothes, in the violent, swirling updrafts of a cumulonimbus storm cloud for 40 mins. He was battered by hailstones at -50℃, deafened by thunderclaps and almost struck by lightning. He managed to survive the decompression, the fall and the storm without any broken bones, with only some bruising and frostbite.
- Lightning heats the air around it instantaneously to 27 000℃!
- There is no difference between sheet and fork lightning. All lightning is fork lightning; sheet lightning is simply lightning hiding behind the clouds and illuminating said cloud from behind.
- The main way to classify lightning is by where the bolt goes. To the ground or in-cloud are the most common possibilities, but there’s also cloud-to-cloud lightning and cloud-to-air.
- The main difference between fog and mist is that if you can see less than 1km through, it’s fog – between 1-2km’s, it’s mist. They are both earth-bound stratus clouds.
- You can also have advection fog (sea fog), radiation fog, steam fog (Arctic sea smoke), upslope fog, valley fog, freezing fog and ice fog.
- When the sun is low on the horizon, the high clouds will be bright white, the middle clouds golden and the lowest clouds will be red.
- Rainbows are not the only ‘optical delights’ – there are double bows, cloudbows, fogbows and a glory, which can appear around the head of a cloudspotter’s shadow.
- Contrails are man-made clouds. Scientists are studying the environmental impact of contrails. After 9/11 and the three day no flights period, they realised that contrails ‘reduced ground temperatures during the day and raised them at night.’ Which made me wonder what might be happening to our skies and temperatures now that flights have been drastically reduced during Covid. Turns out that the scientists are asking this question too.
- And Morning Glory! Not a cocktail or a pretty flower, but an amazing cloud formation almost guaranteed to be seen near Burketown, NT between the end of Sept and Feb…in the morning. A favourite with glider pilots who like to surf the warm currents.