Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cloud study 101

Clouds give crispness and definition to the sky according to Gavin Pinney. And as founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society he should know. He has looked at plenty of clouds. They predict weather – they can mass or burn back. They inspire both wonder and worry – they can spoil a wedding or a picnic. Sometimes they scroll across an otherwise empty atmosphere like teletype. Cloud fanciers have favourites.

Did you know that Nimbus is the Latin for rain cloud? Nimbus by their very definition bring rain, they are dark, close and classed as praecipitato – clouds which can no longer contain their precipitation. Throughout the ten or so years of recent drought we watched the sky somewhat wistfully for nimbus. Then, it seemed to me that the sky was often empty. The ground hardened under it and even tall trees suffered.

On Friday last we drove through an atlas of cloud types. The sky was already threatening at two in the afternoon. At first it was diverting, watching the clouds climb and assemble into impossible architectures. Later it gave an unwanted urgency to our adventure. I know only the ABC’s of cloud kinds. But Cumulonimbus is unmistakable. It is almost always trouble or troublesome - Nimbus but with attitude. It means a storm, a sudden swing on the barometer, thunder and lightning displays and possible hail. To us it meant a plummet in temperature and a sudden drop in visibility. 

Leaving town we skirted the Hume which was closed close to Melbourne by an overturned truck. And despite our cross country route progress through Yarra Glen slowed to a crawl - while a tow truck retrieved a youngster’s car that had taken a corner awry and skated on the wet road into a ditch. The kids, thankfully unharmed, watched from under one umbrella while the mud covered car was winched aboard its ride. There would be a deal of explaining to do at home and mothers on their knees somewhere thanking the heavens that it was only an injured car. Meanwhile the storm hit its stride. The next three hours or so we seemed to be driving through all of the elements at once. Trees came down, a semi trailer jack-knived across our path, lightning lit up the road in minute spaced exposures. I was gripping the wheel hard and craning to see. Mostly all I want in a storm is to be home – the gates fixed so as not to bang, the gutters clear. I like the heat to be on, a bowl of soup ready, the family on the sofa or at least busy in their rooms – the dogs at my feet and a book in my hand.I am not known to be brave or adventurous. I am not even that often out at night. But we were on a mission to fetch a rescue dog and that alone made it worth risking wet roads.

That night we crawled into town like sailors looking for safe harbour. Well, Albury is a good way from the ocean – but the river is close and as we crossed it looked a torrent. Perhaps we could have been sweet water sailors…

After dinner - surprisingly good, television - reception terrible and bed - bliss, we woke to a different kind of cloud. Stratus is the kind of cloud that likes to be on the ground. It is a dog at heel. Damp almost to the point of rain but falling somewhere short - it is our chance to experience the sky at sea level. Nosing north to Canberra we sped into a chalky quiet.Either everyone else was sleeping or sensible enough to stay home.


  1. Glad you made it home safely in the storm. I didn't realize you had been in drought for so long. I found a place online to read more about it. I would have to say my favorite clouds are Stratus. Some people think they are spooky. I like to think of them as coming down to earth say "hello". I hope you see more Nimbus clouds soon.

  2. Thanks for your good wishes Tammy.
    The drought in this part of Victoria ended a couple of years ago following our worst bushfire ever. Since then we have had rain although it is always amazing albeit troubling to me that some children have never really seen a downpour. I love Nimbus but I agree that Stratus are poetic.

    1. I'm glad it's getting better there. Did you have the same problem we have out West here, with natural fires that would have burned off the underbrush and kept the land from getting too overgrown being suppressed? Fuel on the ground has built up making the fires more intense. Efforts to thin the forest and do small, controlled fires to keep huge, disastrous fires from happening have been blocked. It's like Nature is trying to balance itself.