What are Cirrus clouds?

An especially heavy layer of cirrus could indicate an approaching storm system.

Cirrus clouds are thin, thin clouds that form in the upper levels of the troposphere. They are mainly composed of ice crystals, reflecting the extreme cold at this time, and can take a variety of shapes and forms. As a general rule, cirrus are thin enough to be transparent or very close to them, and they form in fine weather, although an especially heavy layer of cirrus may indicate the arrival of a storm system.

Cirrus clouds are found at the highest point in the troposphere, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that comes in contact with the ground.

These clouds usually form above 23,000 feet (6,000 meters) and are often accompanied by ice crystal tails that add to the thin, ethereal appearance of cirrus clouds. They can appear as isolated clouds, or in a large mass, depending on weather conditions and ambient humidity, and they can also appear in association with other types of clouds.

A famous form of cirrus cloud is cirrus fibratus, the classic trailing cloud mare’s tail. When cirrus clouds appear in a very puffy form, they are known as cirrocumulus clouds, while the transparent leaves of cirrus that stretch across large chunks of the sky are known as cirrostratus. Cirrus duplicatus forms stacked layers of clouds that can be connected by threads that pass between the layers, and cirrus Kelvin-Helmholtz forms distinct spiral patterns in the sky.

Cirrus clouds can also be seeded by passing aircraft, as they expel moisture and other materials from their engines. These clouds are known as “cirrus aviaticus” or “trails” and are familiar to many people who live or work near major airports, where contrails can cross the sky in certain weather conditions. Depending on conditions, contrails may remain or slowly melt into the sky; contrails can be used to estimate the direction a plane is heading or moving away, as observers on the ground can see which direction the cloud is heading.

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Among the various types of clouds that people can identify, cirrus clouds appear at the highest point in the troposphere, the section of Earth’s atmosphere that comes in contact with the ground. The height of cirrus clouds can vary depending on the region of Earth over which they form, as the troposphere is thinner in some places than in others. By looking at the direction of tails associated with a cirrus cloud fragment, people can determine which way the wind is going at the level of the cloud-inhabited troposphere.

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