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6 Ways To Interpret The Clouds On Your Next Flight

By learning to read the clouds around you, you can gather critical information about current and future flight conditions.

1) Direction and Speed

It's easy to determine the direction and speed of clouds when you're standing on the ground. But when you're in the air, it's a different story. Typically, the best way to identify a cloud's velocity and direction is to look at its shape.

If a cloud is symmetrical, little to no wind is affecting it, and you can assume that it will remain relatively stationary. However, observing the shape of clouds gives you a general idea of what movement is occurring, but it's just an estimate.

Tilted clouds indicate that a layer is being pushed by the winds aloft. If the cloud is developed vertically, it will lean in the direction it is being pushed.


2) Strength

Generally, the more defined a cloud structure, the stronger (and more turbulent) it is. When you're looking at potentially hazardous storm systems' cloud formations, sharp lines and defined edges indicate that a cloud has the potential to produce stronger turbulence, rainfall, and lightning.


3) Atmospheric Stability

Clouds are an excellent visual marker of the current atmospheric conditions. Why is this important? Unstable atmospheres (where a warm airmass is under a colder airmass) have the ability to produce severe weather such as thunderstorms and low-level wind shear events.

Clouds that appear in a stable atmosphere are marked by the smoother appearance of stratus clouds. This flat formation of clouds is caused by a lack of vertical movement.

On the opposite side of the scale are cumulous clouds, which indicate that a localized area is experiencing an unstable atmosphere. This is best seen by the puffy shape of 'cauliflower' like clouds. This rough-looking cloud contains significant vertical updrafts, which can be helpful for glider pilots looking for thermals to gain altitude, but less helpful for pilots looking for a smooth ride.

4) Temperature Inversions

When discussing temperature inversions, the winds and temps aloft chart is a useful tool, but it's not the only one available.

In an atmosphere without a temperature inversion, haze will settle along the ground. But when a temperature inversion exists, haze will spread all the way up to the inversion. An inversion layer prevents haze from dispersing at higher altitudes, and you can identify the boundaries of a temperature inversion visually by observing where the haze burns off.


5) Future Conditions

There's no getting around the fact that clouds aren't a crystal ball for you to look into the future, but they can be very useful to make educated guesses about future conditions on the go.

Low clouds can be used for forecasting within the near future - within minutes and hours. High altitude cloud formations give a glimpse of what's to come in several hours or even days in the future.

Fog allows you to see into the near future. As you see it slowly form and disperse you can anticipate how it will affect your flight. Fog often follows the contour of the terrain, making it predictable.

If you see high altitude clouds moving in a significantly different direction than those at the surface, you might conclude that surface winds will begin to alter themselves to be closer to that of the high altitude winds in hours or days to come.

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6) Hazards

Certain clouds are associated with hazardous conditions to pilots.

Almond-shaped clouds found above mountainous regions called lenticular clouds can pose an imminent danger to aircraft that enter them. These cloud bands are caused by mountain waves.

Thunderstorms are another easily recognizable cloud system, characterized by their significant vertical development, puffy cauliflower lines, and anvil-shaped top. The turbulence in these systems can pose a threat to even large aircraft.

Want to learn more about clouds and the conditions associated with them? Sign up for our Aviation Weather online course here.

Nicolas Shelton

Nicolas is a private pilot from Southern California. He is currently studying at Purdue University, where he is working on advanced pilot ratings. You can reach him at

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