Tag Archives: Precipitation

Get Your Head Out of the Clouds!

Ever gazed up into the sky and wondered, what’s in a cloud? Simply put, clouds are giant puffy masses that hang out in our atmosphere made up of tiny air droplets and ice. These droplets are super light, which allows them to float and drift effortlessly across the sky.


Clouds come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, forming all sorts of patterns. Have you ever watched the clouds long enough to see them morph into your favorite animal? Clouds are constantly moving across the sky and often catch the eye of a daydreaming onlooker. Watch them long enough and a whole story will play out before your eyes!


Here at CIMI, some of our favorite clouds to watch are the ones that set right above the ocean as the sun is rising in the morning. The colors turn all types of red, purple, orange, and yellow…it’s truly magnificent!


How are clouds formed?

To understand how clouds are formed, first we must understand the water cycle! Ever heard of it? This never-ending movement of water through the atmosphere is happening all the time through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. This cycle starts when warm water vapor near the ground starts to rise and eventually cools. This cool air forms humidity, or clouds, and under certain conditions, rain or even snow will fall back down to earth. The process of air cooling below its saturation point forms the clouds you see every day.

water cycle (1)

Do we have names for the different cloud shapes?

Indeed, we do! Clouds are named and classified by their location in the atmosphere. We can thank a man named Luke Howard who created most of these names in 1803, and are still used all over the world when people talk about clouds. When we classify clouds, we use a system created by the World Meteorological Organization that divides them into 10 main groups. We divide them further into three categories: High clouds, Medium clouds, and Low clouds. Lots of fancy Latin names exist within those three categories, try your hand at pronouncing some of those names on the chart below!

cloud shapes and names

See if you can name the different clouds found in the photos above! Or next time you find yourself cloud-gazing, try to put a cloudy name to the giant puffs that you see above you!

Water in Motion: The Freshwater Cycle

Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water that is constantly in motion. The total amount of water in the world never really changes, it just takes on new forms and moves to new places, from sky to sea to ground. This process is called the water cycle, and it is the reason we have clouds, rainfall, rivers, groundwater, and an ocean teeming with life.


One of the things that makes water such a unique molecule is that all of its stages (ice, liquid, and gas) can exist naturally on Earth. As one water molecule travels through the water cycle, it may pass through all three of these stages. During the process of evaporation, the water that gets collected in oceans, lakes, and rivers heats up at the surface and turns into a gas, sending gaseous water particles into the atmosphere. Humidity increases as more water vapor accumulates in the air.


As water vapor rises into the atmosphere, it begins to cool down, condensing back into a liquid phase. Water molecules are polar, so they are attracted to each other. When water droplets clump together in the sky, they form clouds.


When enough water vapor condenses in the atmosphere to make water droplets heavy enough to fall back down to Earth, precipitation occurs. Precipitation can come in many forms: rain, snow, hail. It can be caused by both rises and falls in temperature. When the temperature decreases, more water vapor condenses into a liquid. If it gets cold enough, the water freezes as it falls from the sky, creating snow or hail. Conversely, when the temperature increases, evaporation also increases. This brings more water into the atmosphere, causing rain. That is why warm, tropical places get so much rainfall. Precipitation of all kinds helps replenish freshwater reserves on Earth, like lakes, rivers, and groundwater.


As precipitation occurs, some of the water gets soaked up by the land, while some flows over the land’s surface and feeds into rivers and streams. This is called runoff, or surface runoff. The physical geology and topography of the land plays a big role in determining where the water will run. For instance, water is more likely to run quickly over something impervious, like a road, versus porous soil. It also likes to flow downhill and into previously-made canyons and gullies. Many years of runoff in the same place will cause erosion, carving out the land into channels where the water likes to run until the landscape is forever changed. That is how the Colorado River created the Grand Canyon.


The water that falls to Earth and does not flow over the land gets absorbed by the ground. An aquifer is an underground layer of permeable rock or sediment where groundwater gets stored. The water table is the level underground where this water sits. Eventually, groundwater can reenter the water cycle by seeping into other bodies of water or by getting pumped out of the Earth by humans.

It is possible for the same molecule of water to remain in the water cycle for over 100 million years before it gets broken apart by photosynthesis or other natural processes. That means that the same droplet of water that passed through a dinosaur’s body could be passing through your own body right now. Because of the interconnectedness of the water cycle, every dam we build, every well we dig, every piece of trash we drop on the ground has the power to affect water sources hundreds of miles away. And eventually, almost all water ends up in the ocean. That is why it is so important to be aware of how our actions can affect the environment around us, because everything we do has the potential to impact the resources that we all need to survive.

Check Out this Cool Interactive Watercycle: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycle-kids-adv.html


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!