Weatherwatch: the man who classified the clouds

<span>Photograph: Nigel Blake/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Nigel Blake/Alamy

Do you know a cirrus cloud when you see one? Can you differentiate your cumulus from your stratus, and are you up to speed on what a nimbostratus looks like?

The names we use to classify clouds were developed in 1802 by a man called Luke Howard. Prior to Howard’s cloud classification scheme, clouds were thought to be too changeable to be classified, and they tended to be described according to their colour or shape, with names often reflecting the way that farmers or sailors viewed them. Some of those descriptors, such as woolly clouds and mackerel skies, have become embedded in common language.

Inspired by Linnaeus and his classification scheme for plants and animals, Howard – who was a keen amateur meteorologist – came up with three categories of cloud based on their appearance and the way in which they formed. Using Latin, the language of science, Howard called his cloud types cirrus (lock of hair), cumulus (an accumulation or heap) and stratus (to spread or flatten out).

He further classified them according to their altitude, and he later added nimbus (dark rain cloud) to describe the deep black clouds that are pretty much guaranteed to produce a downpour. Howard’s fresh perspective influenced many Romantic poets, philosophers and painters, with JMW Turner becoming the master of expressive skies.