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Cloud catcher: how a scientist helped classify a new type of cloud.

Ten years ago, people all over the world began posting photos online of a mysterious type of cloud. They shared the photos to try to figure out what the cloud was, but nobody knew.

Clouds are classified, or sorted into groups, based on how they look. But this cloud didn't match any existing description. It was unique!

Cloud spotters unofficially named the formation Undulatus asperitas (und-you-LAH-tuss as-PAIR-ee-tass). That means "rough waves" in Latin.

"It looks like waves crashing in the sky," says Graeme Anderson. He's a meteorologist, or weather scientist, in the United Kingdom. He recently became the first scientist to officially study the strange cloud.

Cloud Quest

A group of cloud spotters asked the World Meteorological Organization to add Undulatus asperitas to the International Cloud Atlas. This book is like a dictionary of cloud formations. But nobody knew how the strange cloud formed. Without this information, scientists couldn't classify it as a new type.

Anderson knew he could help. As a meteorologist, he studies the atmosphere, or protective layer of gases around Earth. This helps him understand the weather, including clouds.

Clouds form when moisture in the air cools and condenses, or forms droplets. The shape a cloud takes depends on factors like wind, temperature, and the amount of moisture in the air.

Most clouds you see are common types. But Undulatus asperitas clouds are rare. Their choppy, wavelike pattern makes them stand out from other clouds.

Anderson needed to describe the new cloud's appearance. He also needed to understand what weather patterns gave it its unique shape. He got to work.

Weather Sleuth

Anderson started by studying photos of the cloud that people had shared online. He looked up weather records from the same times and locations as the photos. He also studied satellite images of the atmosphere in those areas. This helped him understand what the weather was like when the strange clouds formed.

The research was revealing. Anderson determined that the wavy clouds most commonly form at the base of huge thunderstorms. Cool air sinks into the bottom of a cloud, making it lumpy. "If the wind speed changes, the lumps can spread out into waves," he says.

Anderson published a scientific report on the cloud. This past June, the World Meteorological Organization announced plans to add it to the atlas this year. That would make it the first new cloud type in more than 50 years!

"[Digital] cameras and the Internet have made it much easier to study rare clouds," says Anderson.

Lesson Plan


1. Print out pictures from the Internet of cirrus, cumulus, and stratus clouds.

2. Tape the pictures to the board in a row and write the name of each cloud above its picture. Create a chart by adding three rows below the pictures labeled "description," "cloud height," and "weather conditions."


1. Explain that different clouds form under different conditions and at different places in the atmosphere. One way scientists classify, or categorize, clouds is by their appearance. Explain that the printed pictures are three types of clouds.

2. Have students describe the appearance of cirrus clouds, (thin, wispy, white) Write this description in the chart. Do the same for the cumulus clouds (small, fluffy, white) and stratus clouds (low, flat, gray).

3. Ask: Which cloud do you think forms in the upper part of the atmosphere? (cirrus) Explain that the other two types of clouds usually form in the lower part of the atmosphere. Write this information in the chart.

4. Explain that cirrus clouds typically form when the weather is about to change. Ask: Which cloud do you think often forms during pleasant weather? (cumulus) Which cloud often brings with it light rain? (stratus) Add this information to the chart.

5. Ask: Can you think of another cloud we could add to this chart? (Answers will vary but could include thunderstorm clouds, also called cumulonimbus clouds.)


* Name three factors that affect the shape of a cloud, (wind, temperature, and the amount of moisture in the air)

* As a class, use the article to add the newly identified cloud to the chart on the board. (You can use the image on page 8 as the photo.)

SKILLS SHEETS available at

Cloud in a Jar (T5): Conduct an experiment to see how dust helps cloud; form.

What Can You Infer? (online-only): Draw inferences based on supporting details in the text.


Learn how a scientist helped identify a new type of cloud.


Print Edition: Lexile 800 Guided Reading Level R

Online Leveling Tool: Lexile 610 Guided Reading Level L


NGSS: ESS2.C: The roles of water in Earth's surface processes

NSES: Structure of the Earth system; science as a human endeavor

Common Core: Reading Informational Text: 1.

Refer to details and examples when drawing inferences from a text.

DIGITAL FEATURES: /superscience

Video: Watch a video about how clouds form.

Web Link: Learn about the 10 basic cloud types: /srh/jetstream/clouds /cloudwise/types.html
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Title Annotation:cool science jobs; Graeme Anderson
Author:Chain, Lydia
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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