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Weather 101 – How Clouds Are Formed

A lot of people have only a vague sense of how clouds form. This was recently brought to my attention when I was asked when clouds form when a cold front moves into an area. The biggest key in understanding it is to know how clouds are formed, in the first place.

At any given temperature, air can only hold a certain amount of water vapor. If the amount of moisture exceeds the air’s capacity to hold it, the water must condense. In warm air, the molecules of air are far apart and it can hold more moisture than when the air is colder and denser. This means that as the temperature of the air increases, it has more of a leeway in regard to the amount of moisture it can contain.

As it gets colder, though, it can reach a point of moisture saturation, when the water vapor must condense. At ground level, we normally know this as the dew point. Dew forms when the temperature drops too low for the air to contain the moisture and the water vapor condenses as dew. 

Greatly simplifying it, the farther up in the atmosphere you go, the colder the air is. Many things can affect this, but the point is that if moist air gains a great enough altitude, the moisture condenses into what we see as clouds. 

Warm or hot air, being less dense than cold air, usually rises. This is why, on a hot summer day, the morning can have clear skies, but in the afternoon clouds and thunderstorms can develop. More moisture is evaporated as the day heats up and the hot, moist air rises to the point where it is cooled by the air above. All of the excess water must condense when it is cooled, so the clouds form.

In answer to the question I was given, clouds form as soon as warm, moist air is forced upward, and also cooled, by an approaching cold front. A cold front isn’t necessary for causing clouds, it merely moves the process along faster. 

A cold front can also produce a series of storms along its forward edge, for the reasons already stated, and this is often referred to as a squall line. 

  • Do you now have a better idea of how clouds form?

    • Yes
    • No
    • I knew all of this already
    • I’m not really interested

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Written by Rex Trulove

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