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Weather Vol.

58 February 2003

On the formation of stratiform and

convective cloud

C. G. Collier
Telford Institute of Environmental Systems, University of Salford

Cloud is the most obvious manifestation of ing their formation are books by Bader et al.
atmospheric motions. Since the different types (1995), Scorer (1994), and Scorer and Verkaik
of clouds were classified by Luke Howard in (1989).
his essay on the modification of clouds pub-
lished in 1804, meteorologists have strived to
The formation of cloud
measure the dimensions of cloud, its height
and life cycle, and the way in which it impacts Clouds occur when air is cooled below its
the weather. The development of observing saturation temperature. However, the mechan-
systems such as radar and satellites has isms by which air is caused to rise and hence
improved our understanding of cloud forma- cool are often complex, being three-dimen-
tion, and has made it possible to numerically sional and on a range of scales. Cloud particles
model them, although our knowledge remains may grow by various processes to form precipi-
imperfect. tation. Whilst the subject of this summary is
In this paper the range of mechanisms lead- clouds, inevitably we touch upon precipitation,
ing to the formation of cloud is outlined, draw- although we will not discuss the microphysics
ing heavily on a number of publications and of how precipitation is formed.
handbooks. Of particular practical use in The atmospheric motions which produce
understanding clouds and the systems underly- the lifting necessary to trigger cloud, and sub-
Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Table 1 Scales of cloud and precipitation systems (partly after Browning 1983)

Precipitation Description Horizontal Vertical

system scale velocity
(km) (cm s± 1 )

Localised Precipitation from single clouds in the lower atmosphere or ~100.5 ~102
convection from convective generating cells within larger-scale
systems. They may occupy a large depth of the troposphere,
in which case they are referred to as thunderstorms.
Mesoscale Cluster of convective cells ~101.5 ~10

Mesoscale Convective cells occurring in lines, Width ~101.5 ~10

cloudband/ sometimes almost two-dimensional Length ~102

Synoptic- or Midlatitude depressions Width ~102 ~1

large-scale Length ~103

Tropical Known as hurricanes in the southern part of the Radius ~101.5 ~102
storms North Atlantic, tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean and
south-west Pacific, and typhoons in the south-western
part of the North Pacific.

sequent precipitation, are organised on various Convective cloud

scales as shown in Table 1. Although mesoscale
convective systems and cloudbands/rainbands As the lower layers of the atmosphere are
are entered in this table as separate phenom- warmed by the sun, or cold air passes over the
ena, in fact they may occur within the larger warm sea, the air becomes less dense and rises.
systems, and represent organisation on an If the atmosphere is unstable, then vertical
intermediate scale of localised convection. motion will occur, giving rise to condensation
Often the simple distinction is drawn between of water vapour around the top of the atmos-
convective and stratiform clouds (Fig. 1) where pheric boundary layer (1± 2 km) and the for-
convective cloud tends to be deeper, and gives mation of convective cloud. Such cloud may
the appearance of a `boiling’ fluid, whereas grow to a height of several kilometres in 20
stratiform cloud is shallow, layered and more minutes or so as shown in Fig. 2, and lead to
quiescent. However, as implied by Table 1, rain or hail if the cloud is very substantial. The
both types of cloud may occur in the same possibility that convection may develop from
atmospheric systems. mid-level instability if lifting occurs is some-
There is of course a very great range of var- times marked by a form of altocumulus clouds
iations in cloud type (see, for example, Scorer shaped like the turrets of a castle, known as
and Verkaik 1989) arising from variations, castellanus.
sometimes only slight, in the ambient atmos- Figure 2 shows a depiction of the develop-
pheric conditions in which air is forced to rise ment of a single-cell thunderstorm from small
and the nature of the air motions. In what fol- cumulus humilis cloud, with heavy precipita-
lows the main dynamical processes involved in tion as the storm reaches maturity. This life
the formation of cloud as noted in Table 1 are cycle will occur only if the ambient air is very
outlined. In seeking to understand the dynami- unstable, and often the convective cloud
cal mechanisms producing cloud it is useful to remains of small size. However, thunderstorms
note that, as a rule, air does not cross sharp may organise themselves leading to multicell
cloud boundaries at the level of the cloud. storms in which new cells are regenerated as
Ragged edges denote that air is flowing into or the outflow from the initial cell interacts with
out of cloud. the surrounding air. The impression is given
Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Fig. 1 Cloud associated with a midlatitude depression with large areas of stratiform cloud. Convective cloud (inset)
forms in the cold air behind the system (after Scorer and Verkaik 1989).

Fig. 2 Schematic of a single-cell thunderstorm (after Burgess and Lemon 1990; Chisholm and Renick 1972)

that the thunderstorm is moving as a single anvils of thunderstorm cloud, cumulonimbus,

cell, whereas new cells are constantly being sometimes display pendulous breast-like cloud
generated at the leading edge of the system. known as mamma. Such cloud is not dynami-
This cell propagation occurs to the left of the cally significant, although its exact origin is not
main direction of movement of the storm. As well understood.
the cells dissipate, the convective cloud tends When sufficient vertical wind shear exists,
to collapse into areas of stratiform cloud which and strong convective instability is present, a
may merge into a single large area of stratiform single very intense cell known as a supercell
cloud, often producing precipitation. The may develop. In supercells vertical motions and
Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Fig. 3 Cross-section through a midlatitude depression and its fronts according to Bjerknes and Solberg (1922) (from
Ludlam 1963). Rain areas are shaded, and arrows show the air motion associated with the fronts.

rotation are very strong, and giant hail and tor- (see Fig. 2 from Fox et al. 2001). Here cloud
nadoes may occur. Small arc clouds character- droplets have frozen and, because the ice eva-
ise the inflow region, and in severe porates less readily than supercooled water at
thunderstorms there may be several bands of the same temperature, the ice crystals will eva-
cloud marking this region, leading into enor- porate only if the air is warmed to above the
mous towering cumulus cloud reaching to frost point (Scorer 1994).
heights sometimes in excess of 15 km. Such
systems are rare in the United Kingdom.
Midlatitude depressions
Whilst thunderstorms are the most specta-
cular manifestation of convective clouds, small During the early part of the twentieth century
cumulus clouds may develop due to surface the idea of fronts within low pressure systems
heating. Also lines of shallow convective cloud termed `depressions’ was developed (Bjerknes
may form in the ascending branch of cells and Solberg 1922). A wave was considered to
aligned along the wind in the boundary layer. develop on a boundary between warm and cold
The motion within the cells is helical, and sev- air, giving rise to a warm front and cold front
eral cloud lines may occur parallel to each structure. The ascending motion associated
other stretching for many kilometres. Similar with these fronts produced well defined cloud
structures occur at the leading edge of land- or types, both convective and stratiform, as shown
sea-breezes. in Fig. 3. However, some cloud may be formed
by ascent not directly from the surface, and
these types of cloud are referred to as altocu-
mulus or altostratus, or may relate to specific
Mesoscale convective systems
processes, for example billow clouds arising
Several thunderstorms may be grouped from shear instability.
together within what Maddox (1980) referred Whilst this model of frontal cloud has
to as mesoscale convective complexes. Such formed the basis of modern forecasting until
systems are thought to produce 50± 60% of the recently, the development of weather radar in
summer rainfall in the Great Plains of the the 1940s and 1950s, followed by observations
USA, and cause severe flash floods. In the from satellite-borne instrumentation in the
United Kingdom these systems tend to be 1960s, revealed much more complex cloud
smaller, although they may still lead to severe structures. A new model was developed show-
weather. Browning and Hill (1984) designated ing the three-dimensional structure of the air-
these systems mesoscale convective systems flow in terms referred to as ascent within
(MCSs). `conveyor belts’. Figure 4 shows the model
The MCS is characterised by convective within which the newly observed detail in the
cloud in its early stages of development, but clouds could be understood.
later lifting on a large scale leads to extensive Although Fig. 4 does provide an under-
stratiform cloud characterised on satellite standing of the generation of cloudbands and
images by an extensive cirrus (ice) cloud shield rainbands, it was recognised that the configura-

Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Fig. 4 Model depicting the main features of the large-scale flow that determines the distribution of cloud and precipita-
tion in a midlatitude depression. The arrows represent flow, the height of which is labelled in millibars. The scalloped line
represents the outline of the cloud pattern (after Carlson 1980).

tion of the warm conveyor belt (WCB) strongly the surface warm front and, as the system
influenced the observed cloud pattern. In an occludes, a cirrus cloud head may form as
active cold front the WCB lies parallel to and shown in Fig. 5. The exact configuration
astride the front. Deep convective cloud, which depends upon how the conveyor belts are
may be organised into a narrow line of convec- arranged as shown in the figure. In Fig. 5(b)
tive activity with stratiform cloud flowing away the resultant cloud head arising from the inter-
from the surface front at `mid-levels’, lies along actions of two systems is related to a phenom-
the surface front. However, for an active warm enon known as an instant occlusion (Anderson
front stratiform cloud may be extensive along et al. 1969).
Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Fig. 5 Models showing airflows W1 and W2 (with heights in millibars) and extent of cloud area C in two configurations
of an occluding midlatitude depression (after McGinnigle et al. 1988)

Generally rainfall totals from midlatitude Tropical storms

depressions are not large. However, when sys-
tems become slow-moving or stationary, storm Convective clouds are seen to cluster in the tro-
totals of over 100 mm in 24 hours may occur. pics, particularly over the sea in the area of the
Often such rainfall is enhanced by forced intertropical convergence zone near the equa-
ascent over orography. tor. In a small fraction of these clusters the cir-
culations of individual cells interact, drawing
heat and moisture from the sea and leading
Orographic clouds them to develop into hurricanes or tropical
When an airstream containing a stable moist cyclones. These systems are characterised by
layer moves over mountains, and the wind circular bands of clouds, very heavy precipita-
increases with height, lee waves may occur tion and strong winds.
downwind of the mountains. Cloud forms if
the ascent in the waves is sufficient for the Concluding remarks
water vapour to condense. Figure 6 shows a
typical pattern of lee wave cloud. Sometimes The representation of clouds remains one of
standing wave clouds, consisting mainly of the major uncertainties in current numerical
spherical droplets, have iridescent colouring weather and climate models. Clouds increase
depending upon the angle of the sun. The flow the scattering of incoming solar radiation to
over and around individual mountains may space, and also absorb the terrestrial radiation
also be indicated by specific types of cloud, e.g. emitted from the earth’ s surface whilst emitting
cap, banner and lenticular clouds. Cloud may less than the surface because they are cooler.
form in the lee of a mountain associated with a Much has been learnt about clouds since Luke
turbulent eddy (rotor). These clouds have a Howard’s day, but the complexities of the
long cylinder form with horizontal axis parallel dynamical mechanisms leading to cloud forma-
to the mountain ridge. An example in the UK tion continue to exercise both researchers and
is the helm bar formed above Crossfell, operational weather forecasters.
Cumbria. Clouds indicate the dynamical mechanisms
However, in addition to lee wave cloud, governing airflow in the atmosphere. However,
high-level cirrus cloud may indicate whether as pointed out by Scorer and Verkaik (1989),
turbulence is present near mountains. Thin all clouds are unique. Moisture affects instabil-
cirrus may be observed upwind of mountains ity; this in turn affects cloud height which
with a clear area over them and, if turbulence is comes under different shearing forces at all
present, the clear area may extend into the lee levels. Even small changes in these conditions
of the mountains, beyond which thick, very will result in clouds having different forms.
cold cirrus is observed. Observation of clouds reminds us all of how
Weather Vol. 58 February 2003

Fig. 6 Pattern of wave clouds observed from a polar-orbiting satellite over the British Isles on 13 May 2000. Note in
particular the wave clouds over Scotland. (Courtesy of NERC Dundee Satellite Receiving Station.)

Weather Vol. 58 February 2003
difficult it is to numerically model the real cyclones and the comma cloud pattern. Mon.
atmosphere. Wea. Rev., 108, pp. 1498± 1509
Chisholm, A. J. and Renick, J. H. (1972) The kine-
matics of multi-cell and super-cell Alberta hailstorms.
References Research Council of Alberta Hail Studies, Alberta
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R., Ferguson, E. W., Oliver, V. J. and Smith, A. H. Demonstration Project Sydney 2000: Part 1: An
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(supplements 1971,1973), Air Weather Services, Ludlam, F. H. (1963) Severe local storms: a review.
Washington DC Meteorol. Monogr., 5, pp. 1± 30
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circulation. Geofis. Publ., 3, pp. 3± 18 1387
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the British Isles. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc., 110,
pp. 897± 913 Correspondence to: Prof. C. G. Collier, Telford
Burgess, D. W. and Lemon, L. R. (1990) Severe Institute of Environmental Systems, Peel Building,
thunderstorm detection by radar. In: Atlas, D. University of Salford, Salford, Greater Manchester
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