You are on page 1of 17

International Cloud Atlas Glossary

Table 2. Cloud classifications

Mother-clouds and special clouds
Supplementary features
Species Varieties
Genera and accessory clouds (most commonly occurring mother-clouds
are listed in the same order as genera)
(listed by frequency of observation) Genitus Mutatus
Cirrus fibratus intortus mamma Cirrocumulus Cirrostratus
uncinus radiatus fluctus Altocumulus Homo
spissatus vertebratus Cumulonimbus
castellanus duplicatus Homo
Cirrocumulus stratiformis undulatus virga - Cirrus
lenticularis lacunosus mamma Cirrostratus
castellanus cavum Altocumulus
floccus Homo
Cirrostratus fibratus duplicatus - Cirrocumulus Cirrus
nebulosus undulatus Cumulonimbus Cirrocumulus
Altocumulus stratiformis translucidus virga Cumulus Cirrocumulus
lenticularis perlucidus mamma Cumulonimbus Altostratus
castellanus opacus cavum Nimbostratus
floccus duplicatus fluctus Stratocumulus
volutus undulatus asperitas
Altostratus - translucidus virga Altocumulus Cirrostratus
opacus praecipitatio Cumulonimbus Nimbostratus
duplicatus pannus
undulatus mamma
Nimbostratus - - praecipitatio Cumulus Altocumulus
virga Cumulonimbus Altostratus
pannus Stratocumulus
Stratocumulus stratiformis translucidus virga Altostratus Altocumulus
lenticularis perlucidus mamma Nimbostratus Nimbostratus
castellanus opacus praecipitatio Cumulus Stratus
floccus duplicatus fluctus Cumulonimbus
volutus undulatus asperitas
radiatus cavum
Stratus nebulosus opacus praecipitatio Nimbostratus Stratocumulus
fractus translucidus fluctus Cumulus
undulatus Cumulonimbus
Cumulus humilis radiatus virga Altocumulus Stratocumulus
mediocris praecipitatio Stratocumulus Stratus
congestus pileus Flamma
fractus velum Homo
arcus Cataracta

1 / 17
Cumulonimbus calvus - praecipitatio Altocumulus Cumulus
capillatus virga Altostratus
pannus Nimbostratus
incus Stratocumulus
mamma Cumulus
pileus Flamma
velum Homo

2 / 17
Growth of a cloud or precipitation particle by the collision and union of a frozen particle
(ice crystal or snowflake) with a supercooled liquid droplet which freezes on impact.

Transport of water or air along with its properties (e.g. temperature, chemical tracers) by
the motion of the fluid. Regarding the general distinction between advection and
convection, the former describes the predominantly horizontal, large-scale motions of the
atmosphere or ocean, while convection describes the predominantly vertical, locally
induced motions.

The process in which precipitation particles grow by collision with, and by assimilation of,
cloud particles or other precipitation particles.

The process in which solid precipitation particles combine in the atmosphere to produce
larger particles, such as hailstones.

3 / 17
See supplementary feature incus.

A cirriform cloud with an anvil shape, which forms the upper part of a well-developed
Cumulonimbus. Its glaciated top spreads out horizontally upon reaching the tropopause or
by the action of the winds aloft.

Anvil crawler
[colloq.]. A lightning discharge occurring within the anvil of a thunderstorm, characterized
by one or more channels that appear to crawl along the underside of the anvil. They
typically appear during the weakening or dissipating stage of the parent thunderstorm or
during an active mesoscale convective system.

Anvil dome
See overshooting top.

Anvil rollover
[colloq.]. A circular or semicircular lip of clouds along the underside of the upwind part of a
back-sheared anvil, indicating rapid expansion of the anvil. See cumuliform anvil, knuckles,

Anvil zits

[colloq.]. Frequent (often continuous or nearly continuous), localized

[colloq.]. A region of storm-scale rotation, in a thunderstorm, which is wrapped in heavy
precipitation. This area often coincides with a radar hook echo and/or a mesocyclone,
especially one associated with a high-precipitation (HP) storm.

Beaver('s) tail

[colloq.]. A particular type of inflow band with a relatively broad, flat appearance
suggestive of a beaver's tail. It is attached to a supercell's general updraft and is oriented
roughly parallel to the pseudo-warm front. As with any inflow band, cloud elements move
towards the updraft. Its size and shape change as the strength of the inflow changes. See
also inflow stinger.

Bergeron-Findeisen process

A theoretical explanation of the process by which precipitation particles may form within a
mixed cloud (composed of both ice crystals and liquid water drops).

Black ice

(1) Thin, new ice on freshwater or saltwater, appearing dark in colour because of its
transparency, which is a result of its columnar grain structure. On lakes, black ice is
commonly overlain by white ice formed from refrozen snow or slush. (2) A popular
alternative for glaze. A thin sheet of ice, relatively dark in appearance, may form when
light rain or drizzle falls on a road surface that is at a temperature below 0 °C or,
alternatively, when water already on the road surface subsequently freezes when the
temperature thereof falls below freezing point. It may also be formed when supercooled
fog droplets are intercepted by buildings, fences and vegetation.

4 / 17
Cap cloud

Stationary orographic cloud on or above an isolated mountain peak forming a cap around
the summit.


Convection in the form of a single updraft, downdraft, or updraft/downdraft couplet,
typically seen as a vertical dome or tower as in a Cumulus or towering Cumulus. A typical
thunderstorm consists of several cells.


As Cirrus. More generally, descriptive of clouds composed of small particles, mostly ice
crystals that are fairly widely dispersed, usually resulting in relative transparency and
whiteness and often producing halo phenomena not observed with other cloud forms.
They include all types of Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, and Cirrostratus clouds.

Clear air turbulence (CAT)

A higher altitude (6–15 km) turbulence phenomenon occurring in cloud-free regions,
associated with wind shear, particularly between the core of a jet stream and the
surrounding air.

Cloud bank

A fairly well-defined mass of cloud observed at a distance. It covers an appreciable
portion of the horizon sky but does not extend overhead.


[colloq.]. In popular terminology, any sudden and heavy fall of rain, almost always of the
shower type.

Cloud streets

Clouds arranged in lines roughly parallel to the wind direction and appearing, because of
perspective, to converge towards a point or two opposite points on the horizon called the
radiation point(s). See variety radiatus. The cloud most frequently appearing in cloud
streets is Cumulus mediocris.


Process of formation of a single liquid water drop by the union of two or more colliding

Cold pool

A region of relatively cold air, represented on a weather map analysis as a relative
minimum in temperature surrounded by closed isotherms. Cold pools aloft represent
regions of relatively low stability, while surface-based cold pools are regions of relatively
stable air.

Collar cloud

5 / 17
A ring of cloud that may be observed on rare occasions, surrounding the upper part of a
wall cloud (murus).


(1) The transition from the gaseous to the liquid state. (2) The physical process by which
water vapour is transformed into dew, fog or cloud droplets.

Condensation funnel

See tuba.

Condensation level

Level at which the air subjected to a lifting process becomes saturated.

Condensation nucleus

Nucleus on which water vapour can condense.

Condensation trail (contrail)

Cloud which forms in the wake of an aircraft when the atmosphere at flying level is
sufficiently cold and moist. See contrails and dissipation trail.


See condensation trail.


Organized motions within a layer of air leading to the vertical transport of heat, momentum,

Convective clouds

Cumuliform cloud that forms in an atmospheric layer made unstable by heating at the
base or cooling at the top.

Cumuliform anvil

A thunderstorm anvil (incus) with visual characteristics resembling Cumulus-type clouds
(rather than the more typical fibrous appearance associated with Cirrus). A cumuliform
anvil arises from rapid spreading of a thunderstorm updraft, and thus implies a very strong
updraft. See anvil rollover, knuckles.


As Cumulus. Generally descriptive of all clouds, the principal characteristic of which is
vertical development in the form of rising mounds, domes or towers. This is the
contrasting form to the horizontally extended stratiform types. Cumulus clouds are driven
by thermal convection and typically have vertical velocities in excess of one metre per
second; cloud with the bulging appearance of a Cumulus. When such clouds, arranged in
lines and joined by a common base, possess protuberances giving them a turreted

6 / 17
appearance, they are classed in the species castellanus (of the genera Stratocumulus,
Altocumulus, Cirrus and Cirrocumulus). When they constitute elements separated into
tufts they are classed in the species floccus (of the genera Stratocumulus, Altocumulus,
Cirrus and Cirrocumulus).

Debris cloud

A rotating “cloud” of dust or debris, near or on the ground, often appearing beneath a
condensation funnel and surrounding the base of a tornado.


The formation of ice on a surface directly from water vapour, without passing through a
liquid phase.

Dew-point temperature ([colloq.] dew point)

The temperature at which the air is saturated (the relative humidity is 100%) with respect
to water vapour over a water surface.

Dissipation trail (distrail)

A clearly delineated lane forming behind an aircraft flying in a thin cloud layer; the
opposite of a condensation trail.


Violent and damaging downdraught reaching the surface, associated with a severe

Downslope windstorm

A very strong, usually gusty, and occasionally violent wind that blows down the lee slope
of a mountain range, often reaching its peak strength near the foot of the mountains and
weakening rapidly farther away from the mountains.

Dry line

Narrow zone, other than a warm, cold, or occluded front, across which there is a distinct
gradient in the moisture content of the air near the Earth’s surface.

Electrical storm

Popular public term for a thunderstorm.

Elevated convection

Convection occurring within an elevated layer, i.e. a layer in which the lowest portion is
based above the Earth’s surface.


The mixing of environmental air into a pre-existing organized cloud or an air current so
that the environmental air becomes part of the current or the cloud.

7 / 17

A meteorological term used in the 1956 and 1975 editions of the International Cloud Atlas
(ICA) to define the range of levels within which clouds of certain genera occur more
frequently. Étage has been replaced with “level”, primarily because it can be easily
translated into many different languages. The use of étage in this context was proposed
by J.B. Lamarck (1802) in the first published classification of clouds; also, the grouping of
cloud height in the WMO classification: high étage (3–8 km); middle étage (2–4 km); and
low étage (surface to 2 km).


The physical process by which a liquid or solid is transformed to the gaseous state; the
opposite of condensation.


Supplementary feature virga.

Fallstreak hole

Supplementary feature cavum.

Fast ice

Sea ice which forms and remains fast along the coast, where it is attached to the shore, to
an ice wall, to an ice front, between shoals or grounded icebergs. Vertical fluctuations may
be observed during changes of sea level. Fast ice may be formed in situ from seawater or
by freezing of floating ice of any age to the shore. It may extend a few metres or several
hundred kilometres from the coast.

Feeder band

See accessary cloud flumen.

Flanking line

A line of Cumulus or towering Cumulus clouds connected to, and extending outward from,
the most active part of a supercell. The line normally has a stair-step appearance, with the
tallest clouds closest to the main storm.

Flurry (snow)

Common term for a light snow shower, lasting for only a short period of time.


A warm, dry wind on the lee side of a mountain range, the warmth and dryness of the air
being due to adiabatic compression as the air descends the mountain slopes. In the USA,
the term “chinook” is used for foehn winds in the Rocky and Sierra Mountains.

Foehn gap

8 / 17
A break in an extensive cloud deck or cloud shield, usually a band parallel to and
downwind of the mountain ridge line.

Especially visible in satellite pictures, this cloud-free zone results from the strong sinking
motion on the lee side of a mountain barrier during a foehn

Foehn wall (foehn bank)

Cloud formation which, during a foehn episode, lies over and along a mountain ridge and
which presents, to an observer downwind from the ridge, the appearance of a vertical wall.


A boundary or transition zone between two airmasses of different density and thus
(usually) of different temperature. A moving front is named according to the advancing
airmass, e.g. a cold front, if colder air is advancing.

Frost point temperature

The temperature at which air is saturated with respect to water vapour over an ice surface

Frost smoke

See steam fog.


[colloq.]. A contraction of the words fume and Cumulus, indicating water-droplet clouds
that form within the top of rising plumes from smokestacks, cooling towers or open fires.
This cloud is classified as Cumulus homogenitus.


Snow pellets. Precipitation, usually of brief duration, consisting of crisp, white, opaque ice
particles, round or conical in shape and about 2–5 mm in diameter. Same as snow pellets
or small hail. Soft hail was officially renamed “snow pellets” in 1956.

Gravity wave

A wave disturbance in which buoyancy acts as the restoring force on parcels displaced
from hydrostatic equilibrium.

Gust front

The leading edge of a mesoscale pressure dome separating the outflow air in a
convective storm from the environmental air. This boundary, which is marked by upward
motion along it and downward motion behind it, is followed by a surge of gusty winds on
or near the ground. A gust front is often associated with a pressure jump, wind shift,
temperature drop, and sometimes with heavy precipitation. Gust fronts are often marked
by arcus clouds.

Haboob ((habub) "blasting/drafting")

Strong wind, producing a duststorm or sandstorm, in arid or semi-arid regions of the world.

9 / 17
Hygroscopic substance

A substance that readily attracts water from its surroundings which in meteorology is
applied principally to condensation nuclei such as salt etc.

Ice prisms

See diamond dust.

Ice storm

Intense formation of ice on objects by the freezing on impact, of rain or drizzle.

Inflow bands

See feeder bands.

Inflow stinger

A beaver tail cloud with a stinger-like shape.


An increase of temperature with height.

Inversions and stable layers inhibit vertical motion, often limiting the vertical extent of
cumuliform clouds. If the air below an inversion is relatively moist, the inversion often caps
a layer of stratiform cloud.


That part of the atmosphere, extending approximately from 70 to 500 km, in which ions
and free electrons exist in sufficient quantities to reflect electromagnetic waves.


[colloq.] Lumpy protrusions on the edges, and sometimes the underside, of a
thunderstorm anvil. They usually appear on the upwind side of a back-sheared anvil and
indicate rapid expansion of the anvil due to the presence of a very strong updraft. They
are not the supplementary feature mamma. See also cumuliform anvil, anvil rollover.

Lapse rate

The rate of change of an atmospheric variable, usually temperature, with height. For
example, a steep temperature lapse rate is a rapid decrease of temperature with height


Layer is used to describe a sheet of considerable horizontal extent; often covering the
whole sky. A term of limited meaning used within the Technical Regulations of the
International Cloud Atlas (1956 and 1975 and its predecessor of 1939).

Lee Wave

10 / 17
Any wave disturbance that is caused by, and is therefore stationary with respect to, some
barrier in the fluid flow. Whether the wave is a gravity wave, inertia wave, barotropic wave,
etc., will depend on the structure of the fluid and the dimensions of the barrier.

Levanter cloud

The Spanish and most widely used term for an east or northeast wind occurring along the
coast and inland from southern France to the Straits of Gibraltar.


An intense, localized downdraft of air that spreads on the ground, usually below a
Cumulonimbus, causing rapid changes in wind direction and speed. The diameter is
greater than 4 km. Compare with microburst.

Mares’ tails

Long, well-defined wisps of cirrus clouds, thicker at one end than the other. See Cirrus


A storm-scale region of rotation, typically around 3 -10 km in diameter within a
thunderstorm. Often gives rise to a tornado.


Top of the mesosphere situated at about 80–85 km


The region of the atmosphere, situated between the stratopause and the mesopause, in
which the temperature generally decreases with height.


An intense, localized downdraft of air that spreads over the ground, usually below a
Cumulonimbus, causing rapid changes in wind direction and speed. The diameter is 4 km
or less. Compare with macroburst.

Mixed cloud

(also known as a mixed phase cloud). A cloud in which ice particles are mixed with
supercooled droplets of water. This can lead to mixed icing conditions.

Morning glory

See Species – volutus

An elongated cloud band, visually similar to a roll cloud, usually appearing in the morning
hours, when the atmosphere is relatively stable. Morning glories result from perturbations
related to gravitational waves in a stable boundary layer. They are similar to ripples on a
water surface; several parallel morning glories can often be seen propagating in the same
direction. See species volutus.

11 / 17
Mountain waves
An atmospheric gravity wave, formed when stable airflow passes over a mountain or
mountain barrier.

Multi-vortex tornado
A tornado in which two or more condensation funnels or debris clouds are present at the
same time, often rotating about a common centre or about each other. Multiple-vortex
tornadoes can be especially damaging.

Needle ice
A phenomenon that appears similar to hoar frost but occurring when the temperature of
the soil is above 0°C and the surface air temperatu re is below 0°C. The subsurface liquid
water is brought by capillary action where it freezes and contributes to a growing needle-
like ice column.

A property that does not allow light to pass through so that objects on the other side are
totally obscured. See variety opacus.

Orographic cloud
Cloud whose presence and shape are determined by the relief of the Earth’s surface.

Orographic lift
Lifting of air caused by its passage up and over mountains or other sloping terrain.

Overshooting top (penetrating top)
A dome-like protrusion above a thunderstorm anvil, representing a very strong updraft and
hence a higher potential for severe weather with that storm. A persistent and/or large
overshooting top often present on a supercell. A short-lived overshooting top, or one that
forms and dissipates in cycles, may indicate the presence of a pulse storm or a cyclic

Ozone hole
A characteristic severe depletion of stratospheric ozone that occurs each spring over the
polar regions.

Pile d’assiettes (pile of plates)
The usual term for a series of lenticular clouds stacked one above the other caused by
wave motion in multiple humid layers of air.

Technical classification is Stratocumulus lenticularis duplicatus or AltocumuIus lenticularis
duplicatus (height of cloud base dependent).

Planetary boundary layer (PBL)
The bottom layer of the troposphere that is in contact with the surface of the Earth. It is
often turbulent and is capped by a statically stable layer of air or temperature inversion.
PBL depth (the inversion height) is variable in time and space, ranging from tens of
metres in strongly statically stable situations, to several kilometres in convective
conditions over deserts.

12 / 17
Polar vortex
The large-scale cyclonic circulation in the middle and upper troposphere and extending
into the stratosphere, centred generally in the polar regions.

A hydrometeor consisting of a fall of an ensemble of particles. The forms of precipitation
are: rain, drizzle, snow, snow grains, snow pellets, diamond dust, hail and ice pellets.

A projection or a bulge used to describe swellings, turrets and towers seen in many
clouds; e.g. the small towers seen in Cumulis mediocris, the sometimes complex mass of
towers in Cumulus congestus or the very small turrets of Cirrus castellanus.

A Cumulus cloud (Cumulus flammagenitus) formed by a rising thermal from a fire, or
enhanced by buoyant plume emissions from an industrial combustion process (Cumulus

Quasi linear convective system (QLCS)
A name for a broad class of mesoscale convective systems that have various linear

Rain-free base
A dark, horizontal cloud base with no visible precipitation beneath it. It typically marks the
location of a thunderstorm updraft. Tornadoesmay develop from wall cloud attached to the
rain-free base, or from the rain-free base itself

Rain shadow
Region, situated on the lee side of a mountain or mountain range, where the rainfall is
much less than on the windward side.

Relative humidity
The ratio (%) of the observed vapour pressure to the saturation vapour pressure with
respect to water at the same temperature and pressure.

Roll cloud

Rotor cloud
Turbulent cloud formation in the lee of large mountain barriers. The air in the cloud rotates
around an axis parallel to the range.

Circulation of flow about a horizontal or nearly horizontal axis that is usually associated
with flow over the lee side of a barrier, such as a mountain range. The rotation may
extend to the ground, cause hazards to aircraft, and carry large amounts of dust aloft.


13 / 17
An atmospheric condition in which air holds the maximum amount of water vapour that it
can hold at the observed temperature and pressure, whether over a surface of water or of
ice. In this condition the relative humidity is 100%.

(fractus). The accessory cloud pannus, ragged low clouds – usually Stratus fractus or
Cumulus fractus – that occur below the main cloud base.

The appearance of the upper surface of a layer of cloud which shows undulations of very
different lengths. The whole aspect then suggests waves on the sea.

Sheet is used to describe a relatively thin layer that covers less than the whole sky. See
layer. A term of limited meaning used in the Technical Regulations of the International
Cloud Atlas (1956 and 1975 and its predecessor of 1939).

Shelf cloud
See supplementary feature arcus. A low, horizontal wedge-shaped arcus cloud,
associated with a thunderstorm gust front (or occasionally with a cold front, even in the
absence of a thunderstorms). Unlike the roll cloud, the shelf cloud is attached to the base
of the parent cloud above it (usually a thunderstorm). Rising cloud motion can often be
seen in the leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud, while the underside often appears
turbulent, boiling, and wind-torn.

Depending on the region, precipitation of rain and snow mixed, rain and hail, rain and ice
pellets, melting snow, or sudden and brief rainfall with wind and hail.

Smoking mountain
See banner cloud.

Agglomeration of snow crystals.

Mass of snow heaped up by the wind and deposited along an obstruction or an irregularity
of the terrain.

Sprouting is used to describe the appearance of growing upper parts of clouds such as
Cumulus mediocris and congestus and Cumulonimbus calvus.

Atmospheric phenomenon characterized by an abrupt and large increase in wind speed
with a duration of minutes which diminish rather suddenly. It is often accompanied by
showers or thundershowers

Stable layer

14 / 17
A layer in which the temperature lapse rate is less than the dry adiabatic lapse rate (or
moist adiabatic lapse rate, if saturated). Vertical motion within the stable layer is inhibited.

Steam fog
Fog formed when water vapour is added to air that is much colder than the vapour's
source; most commonly, when very cold air drifts across relatively warm water.

Descriptive of clouds of extensive horizontal development, in contrast to the vertically
developed cumuliform types.

Top of the inversion layer in the upper stratosphere at about 50 km to 55 km.

The region of the atmosphere, situated between the tropopause and the stratopause, in
which the temperature generally increases with height.

The process of phase transition from solid directly to vapor in the absence of melting.

A thunderstorm with a persistent rotating updraft. Supercells are rare, but are responsible
for a remarkably high percentage of severe weather events. especially tornadoes,
extremely large hailstones and damaging straight-line winds.

Liquid water at a temperature below the freezing point.

Placed above or upon something else, or one upon another. Used in describing the cloud
variety duplicatus where cloud patches, sheets or layers may be at slightly different levels
or partly merged.

The condition existing in a given portion of the atmosphere when the relative humidity is
greater than 100%.

Surface-based convection
Convection occurring within a surface-based layer, i.e. a layer in which the lowest portion
is based at or very near the Earth’s surface. Compare with elevated convection.

Table cloth
The cloud that forms over the top of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, due to
orographic lift.

Tail cloud
A horizontal, tail-shaped cloud (not a funnel cloud) at low levels extending from the
precipitation cascade region of a supercell towards the wall cloud. The base of the tail

15 / 17
cloud is about the same as that of the wall cloud. Cloud motion in the tail cloud is away
from the precipitation and towards the wall cloud, with rapid upward motion often
observed near the junction of the tail and wall cloud.

Thermal lifting
Updraught produced locally above a surface warmer than its immediate surroundings

Towering Cumulus (TCU)
Cumulus congestus of great vertical extent.

A property that allows light to pass through diffusely so that objects on the other side are
not clearly visible. See variety translucidus.

A property that allows light to pass through so that objects on the other side are clearly

The boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, where an abrupt change in
lapse rate usually occurs.

Lower part of the Earth’s atmosphere, extending from the surface up to the tropopause, in
which the temperature generally decreases with height.

Random and continuously changing air motions which are superposed on the mean
motion of the air.

[colloq.]. Tornado.

Updraft base
Alternate term for a rain-free base.

A whirling mass of air in the form of a column or spiral. It need not be oriented vertically
but could, for example, be rotating around a horizontal axis.

Wall cloud
See supplementary feature murus.

Wave cloud
Orographic cloud, at the crest of a stationary wave, formed in an airflow crossing a range
of hills or mountains.

Wind shear

16 / 17
The local variation of the wind vector or any of its components in a given direction.

17 / 17