Clouds come in various shapes and colors – from the cotton candy puffs to the rain-bearing raindrops. But even though they appear so simple, clouds are not always as innocent as they appear. And when it comes to atmospheric science, they are the supreme actors. After all, clouds are responsible for everything from lightning strikes to rain.
Here are some surprising facts about clouds that will blow you away:
Clouds aren't weightless
Clouds seem like they wouldn't weigh anything since they're floating in the sky, but that's not the truth. They do have a weight, but it's not what you think. Clouds can weigh millions of pounds. The next time you look up at the sky, but thankful that all of that weight doesn't come barreling down on your head.
A cirrus cloud is made up of ice
A cirrus cloud is made up of ice crystals formed by water vapor freezing as it rises into the atmosphere. The crystals are tiny ice particles, and they grow in different shapes depending on how cold the air is. Therefore, there are different shapes for every type of cloud.
It's hard to believe that there could be a floating sea of ice in the sky, but that's what a cirrus cloud is. It's even hard to believe that what makes a cirrus cloud is ice crystals, but that's the truth.
Virga is precipitation that evaporates before it reaches the ground
Some precipitation evaporates into the sky before it reaches the ground. This is called virga. It's precipitation that, as it falls, completely evaporates before reaching the ground. A phenomenon occurs in the summer, but it also happens in the winter when cold air flows over warmer moisture-filled air from the ground.
When this occurs, there's an increase in virga. The virga isn't destroyed, but the excess precipitation picks up more moisture as it evaporates into the sky. In the summer, warm air moves over cooler air from the ground.
Contrails begin with moist, hot jet exhaust
Contrail clouds are formed when jet exhaust generates moisture. This moisture then condenses into clouds that are similar to cirrus clouds. And like cirrus clouds, contrails are composed of ice crystals. They form when the vapor from jet fuel mixes with the cold and moist air behind a jet. Since cold air holds less moisture than warm air, there is more moisture for contrails to condense around.
The contrail you see in the sky is often seen as a thin line of cloud formation that persists in the sky. But it isn't something that will last long. Once the airplane gets farther away, the cloud you saw earlier is gone.
Anvil clouds are the result of two clouds colliding
When two different types of clouds collide, the cloud formations that result from the collision can create anvil clouds. These particular types of clouds are often associated with thunderstorms, and they are some of the largest varieties of cumulonimbus clouds. If a cloud collision isn't violent enough to produce anvil clouds, then one or both types of clouds will disappear.
These fun facts will change how you think of clouds forever
Clouds are complex things and, after learning these facts, you'll never look at them the same way again. The next time you see a cloud in the sky, you'll think of all the work that it's doing. You'll also think of how vital clouds are to life on Earth. If it weren't for clouds, none of us would be here.