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I wandered lonely as a cloud...

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I know it's not the done thing to diss the Romantic poets, but I'm not sure clouds are really lonely, are they? Let's anthropomorphise them for a moment, and consider the evidence in a logical and scientific manner.


Cumulus clouds. They don't look lonely.

Cumulus is a lumpy cloud. Its name comes from the Latin for "mass" or "heap". It's a good description; a lumpy heap of cloud.

It has clearly-defined edges, and looks like cotton wool. In my head, I can sleep in them because they look so very comfy. And when I'm in aeroplanes, I always think it would be nice to jump out and land in one. In fact, it is the type of cloud drawn expertly by children everywhere, and can be found moonlighting as Father Christmas's beard as and when required. A cloud such as this could not possibly be lonely.

Interesting fact about cumulus clouds: they form "streets" when they get together. And have street parties because they are harbingers of good weather; they don't generally grow tall, and so do not participate in precipitation.


Stratocumulus cloud. A cumulus with a hangover.

Stratocumulus is a "flattened lump or heap". So, basically, it's a cumulus cloud with a hangover. It doesn't get high, forming in the lowest two kilometres of the atmosphere and, like it's more portly brethren, is not associated with precipitation.

I suppose an argument could be made for this cloud being lonely, but I would take issue with that. It has formed from a squishy mass of cumulus clouds, which is pretty neighbourly, and chose its own hungover state. It's usually found in the company of others, which makes it fairly sociable.

Arguably, this cloud is not lonely either. Also, it indicates high pressure and stable winter weather. So it is a pleasant fellow.


Cirrostratus. Wispy. Friendly.

So named from the Latin cirrus, "wisp" or "curl", and stratus, "layer". A wispy layer of cloud. They spend their time high up in the atmosphere (between five and ten kilometres) as a veritable veil of ice crystals.

Cirrostratus halo. Spooky.

They often produce a halo effect (see photo) and indicate moist air and an approaching warm front. Cirrostratus and altostratus form from each other. Such close relationships indicate that cirrostratus are unlikely to be lonely clouds. Quite the opposite, in fact.


These wisps are the aloof clouds of the cloud world. They form in the highest and coldest regions of the trophosphere, are composed of ice crystals, do not bring rain, and they spawned Will 'o' the Wisp, Kenneth Williams' alter ego and entertainer of children of the 80s.

There is a variety of different cirrus clouds - cirrostratus, described above, is just one type. Others include cirrus intortus, tools of the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to use clouds as instruments of torture. Cirrus castellanus is another type of cirrus cloud, used to build castles in the sky; and cirrus vertebratus has no backbone.

Cirrus clouds can be artificial too; contrails from aeroplanes are a type of cirrus cloud. You can judge wind direction up there by looking at how contrails are scattered. And if they persist, you know the relative humidity is quite high. If they disappear quickly, the air up there is very dry. So they're useful things too.

But they all join with each other, and with other cloud types, and are most definitely not lonely.


Nimbostratus. Lonely, perhaps, but not wandering.

These are low-lying clouds that bring rain. They are named from the Latin "nimbus", meaning rain, and "stratus", meaning spread-out. They are big, with flat bases, and are often to be found engulfing the top of a hill. Of course, from the hill's point of view this stratus cloud would be fog. They are the bullies of the cloud world, being big grey brooding miseries, and are the friends of the hills.

They produce dull and gloomy wet days, with the cloud base often touching the ground. The word "fug" describes them nicely.

I suppose that these clouds could be described as lonely. But they don't wander, so my original point stands.


As part of Block 2: Air and Earth, we are studying weather systems. This is, sadly, not as interesting as I thought it might be. I think the extreme weather comes in later in the course. For now, the only thing that has held my interest is the clouds.

I love clouds. They bring depth and mood to the sky, and can often be found making interesting shapes - like pigs, and teapots, and - on the odd occasion - snakes and slippers.

They can also give you a clue as to what the weather may do next, if you know what you're looking for. So this post was really for my benefit; to make sure I've got a vague idea of what clouds look like, and what they herald weather-wise.

I still think cumulus clouds would make a grand bed though. The laws of physics and common senses be damned.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Anthony Dooley, Monday, 27 Feb 2012, 10:17)
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Blue hair, yellow sweater, big smile

The virtues of virtual field trips

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After a certain amount of technology woe (the laptop DVD drive died a horrible, grindy death), the IT manager at my workplace managed to do the (as it turns out, simple) job of installing the Teign Valley DVD on my work computer. What a splendid fellow. (We now have a new DVD drive on the laptop, so I'm currently studying at home. Win!)

On starting up the "tour guide" section of the DVD, I took the tour. Now, I'm the kind of girl who likes being told what to do.

  1. Start here.
  2. Click this.
  3. No, not that, you muppet, THIS.
  4. Listen and absorb.
  5. Keeping clicking the "next" arrows at the end of each section.
  6. Do the activities in order when prompted.

What I got was a rather fuzzy and chaotic set of non-instructions, leaving me unsure as to when the tour finishes, and the actual activities start. I'm still a little unsure, but I'm plodding on, and have completed my first activity - Differences on Dartmoor.

This takes you through a series of places in the Teign catchment, and asks you to look at various maps. You're provided with a spreadsheet, and you've to fill in the missing information. So far, so Sesame Street. One problem: the resources window on screen is tiny. Really, really tiny. And when you have an overlay on the map (e.g. contour lines, so you can give the altitude of the locations you're talking about), you can't zoom in. So you kind of have to guess at the exact measurements you're asked to take at the relevant locations.

This displeases me greatly, because I am, after all, a budding scientist. And there's no room for guesswork in precise measurements.

I'm about to embark upon activity 2 - The Heather Hypothesis. I'll keep you posted.

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Blue hair, yellow sweater, big smile

Starting S216: Environmental Science

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My S216: Environmental Science course materials have arrived! Cue much rejoicing, general study planning, and a little list-making.

A brief aside on the topic of world maps:

Among the six books and the DVD pack was also a wall map of the Earth's surface. It's the Mercator projection, which has always bothered me. People's sense of geography is not based upon fact, but upon the Mercator map, and has been ever since it was first produced in 1569.

What we think the world looks like...

Representing a spherical object on a flat surface is always going to present problems, but the Mercator projection is not even close to being area accurate... Africa is frickin' huge. MASSIVE. As is South America. The main problem with this map is that the further the land mass is from the equator, the more its size is distorted. Thus, Greenland becomes a similar size to Africa.

However, in 1855, a clergyman named James Gall produced his own version of a map of the world, known as the Gall-Peters Projection. This has its drawbacks, too, but the areas represented are much more accurate. See - the northern hemisphere is puny in terms of landmass size compared to the south:

How the world really looks...

Back to the books:

Anyway. That's enough of maps (although I LOVE maps - if anyone wants to buy me antique maps, feel free).

The first block of S216 is a virtual field trip to the Teign Valley in Devon, and is DVD based. Then we're on to the books, which sound very interesting indeed...

Book 2: Air and Earth.

Part One - Air: We'll be looking at the atmosphere. It's cold outside, and there is an atmosphere. I'm all alone, more or less. Then there's the weather, and weather observations. Followed by the ins and outs of the atmosphere, and the global weather machine including ocean circulation and that pesky El Niño.

Part Two - Earth: Comprising rocks and minerals; igneous rocks; metamorphic rocks; fragmentary rocks; and the weathering of rocks and minerals. Then there's an introduction to soil - what it is; soil ecosystems; and soil processes and properties in the environment. I've got to be honest; this section doesn't sound so interesting...

Book 3: Water and Life. This is quite an alarmingly thick book.

Part One - Water: All types of water. What happens to rain? Ground water; a journey down a river; and the hydrological cycle. I like water. I'm reading a biography of water at the moment, and it's bloody fascinating. Water is strange stuff; it doesn't obey the usual laws of liquids. There is nothing as sweet as water when you're really, really thirsty.

Part Two - Life: Vegetation patters; resources to support life; and ecological dynamics. This is one of my areas of interest because I am a tree-hugging hippy who wants to save the world, one turtle at a time.

Book 4: Landforms and Cycles. This is a more reassuringly thin book.

Part One - Landforms: A bit of physical geography, which I loved at school, and which has stayed with me throughout adulthood. The way the Earth's roots works fascinates me. So we'll start with plate tectonics and an introduction to landforms, looking at lithology, and how water shapes the landscape inland and at the coasts. Then we look at ice, and wind, and finally landforms in space and time.

Book 5:

  • Extreme weather
  • Atmospheric chemistry and pollution
  • Wetlands and the carbon cycle
  • Cryosphere

Book 6:

  • Oceans and climate (this one, I'm looking forward to)
  • Water quality
  • Eutrophication
  • Acid rain

Book 7:

  • Grasslands
  • Tropical forests
  • Biological conservation

Books 5, 6 and 7 are going to interest me particularly. This is a beast of a module, and I'm under no illusions as to how much work I'm going to need to put in. Structuring my life is going to be incredibly important over the next few months, so that I have time to spend with my husband, my friends and my family - not to mention the me-time that will be spent doing yoga and pole dancing.

But last year was fiercely busy, and I enjoyed it immensely. So I'm not fazed; and in fact, I can't wait. Bring on 2012. I'm ready for you.

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