Why Do Clouds Often Form Above Mountain Peaks?

A cloud is a mass of water drops or ice crystals suspended or floating in the atmosphere as we see them in the sky. Most of them look fluffy and white and are sometimes gloomy and grey. They form when water condenses in the sky, and this condensation allows us to see the water vapor

It has been noticed that clouds are seen clinging to mountains, especially in the case of famous peaks like Fuji and Kilimanjaro. Let’s find out the reason behind this amazing fact in detail. 

Why Do Clouds Almost Always Cover the Tops of Some Mountains?

When the wind blows across a mountain range, the side of the mountains where the wind starts is called the windward side. When this happens, the air will rise and cool, and this cooler air can no longer hold all the water vapor it could hold when it is warm, and clouds can form.

The simultaneous increase in elevation and drop in pressure causes the water vapor to cool until it reaches the dew point and condenses in the air into water droplets. These droplets are visible as cloud formations.

Here, the air may continue to cool and condense until it forms snow or rain, which eventually will fall on the windward side of the mountain. 

On the other hand, the side of the mountains where the wind leaves the area is known as the leeward side. As the cloud always sinks along the lee side, the air present there will warm, and the water droplets forming the cloud will gradually turn back into vapor.

Another common way mountains cause cloud formation is when air rises because the mountain is usually warmer than the surrounding air, which causes the air to rise. When warm air near the ground hits a mountain, it is pushed up into the colder air higher up, and the moisture condenses. 

The formation of clouds known as lenticular clouds is caused by airlifting as it goes over the mountain. This lifting cools the air below the dew point, and clouds form. Then, the air warms back up on the other side of the mountain because it is above the dew point, and the clouds disappear.

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This often causes cloud formations to look as though they are stationary and clinging to the peak because new droplets condense into the water as old ones return to a vapour state.

These constantly reformed clouds lead people to say that mountains have a pall of clouds at their peaks. This type of cloud is commonly called an orographic cloud caused by a topographical feature’s forced elevation of an air current.

Large mountains often form their specific microclimates, with extreme variations in weather depending on whether the observer is on the windward or lee side and what the elevation is. Mountains also experience more severe weather like rain, sleet, and snow on their windward sides.

For example, Fuji is famous for being too hot at its base, while at the same time, it is cold enough to snow at the top. Many people can be endangered by this because they don’t realize the highly changeable weather around these landforms. 

What Are the Major Types of Clouds?

There are 10 major fundamental cloud types. These types of clouds can be divided into three levels, each with its own main groups of clouds. The clouds such as cirrus, stratus, and cumulus are the most common and representative of each altitude class. 

Cirrus clouds

These clouds are wispy, curly, or stringy, found high in the atmosphere, typically higher than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet), and made of ice crystals. Cirrus clouds signal generally clear, fair weather. The shapes of these clouds often indicate the direction the wind is blowing high in the atmosphere. 

Stratus clouds

These clouds are horizontal and stratified or layered clouds and usually occur close to the Earth. Stratus clouds can blanket the entire sky in a single pattern. Stratus clouds often form at a warm front boundary, where warm, moist air is forced up above cold air.

This movement produces clouds as the humid air is cooled across the entire front. Usually, the presence of stratus clouds indicates a chilly, overcast day. If precipitation falls from stratus clouds, it is generally in the form of drizzle or light snow.

Cumulus Clouds

Cumulus (a Latin word meaning “heap” or “pile”) clouds are large and lumpy. These clouds can stretch vertically into the atmosphere as high as 12,000 meters (39,000 feet). Cumulus clouds are usually created by strong updrafts of moist, warm air.

Cumulus clouds are also the source of most forms of heavy precipitation. The height and size of these clouds usually determine the weather they would bring. The higher the cloud base is, the drier the atmosphere and the fairer the weather will be. Generally, clouds located close to the ground indicate heavy snow or rain. 

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In addition to cirrus, stratus, cumulus, and nimbus clouds, there are cirrocumulus, cirrostratus, altocumulus, altostratus, stratocumulus, nimbostratus, and cumulonimbus clouds. 

The three major cloud groups are:

High-Level Clouds (5-13 km)

Cirrocumulus (Cc), Cirrus (Ci), and Cirrostratus (Cs) are high-level clouds. These clouds are typically thin and white but can appear in a magnificent array of colors when the Sun is low on the horizon.

Mid-Level Clouds (2-7 km)

Altocumulus (Ac), Altostratus (As), and Nimbostratus (Ns) are mid-level clouds composed primarily of water droplets. But they can also be composed of ice crystals when temperatures are sufficiently low.

Low-Level Clouds (0-2 km)

Stratocumulus (Sc), Cumulus (Cu), Stratus (St), and Cumulonimbus (Cb) are low-lying clouds composed of water droplets. However, Cumulonimbus extends well into the high level of clouds with its strong vertical updraft.

Why Are Clouds White and Fluffy?

When clouds are seen from Earth, they usually appear white in color in contrast to the background of a blue sky. This is because when warm air rises from the ground, it carries water vapor which, when it meets the cold air found high in the sky, the gas condenses to liquid and forms cumulus clouds.

These clouds appear fluffy-white, resemble soft cotton pillows and are composed of tiny water droplets. The combination of these colors helps create white light.

The science behind the scattering of sunlight is that clouds are white because light from the Sun is white. Sunlight consists of a full spectrum of colors that make up a rainbow.

However, each color has a different wavelength, measured in nanometers. For example, red has a wavelength of 700 nanometers, which is the longest, while blue has the shortest wavelength at 400 nanometers. Although small particles can scatter short wavelengths more efficiently than long ones, bigger particles, such as water droplets can scatter all wavelengths of light almost equally.  

The electromagnetic spectrum of the sun emits a wide range of energy when it shines. It includes the visible spectrum of orange, red, yellow, blue, green and violet light. When all these colors combine, they create white light.

Thus, sunlight gets scattered into various colors, and they form the color white when combined together. Since there are millions of tiny water droplets in the cloud, as the Sun’s light hits the clouds’ small water droplets, the entire visible spectrum scatters, which gives clouds a white color. 

Cumulus clouds appear like floating, fluffy white cotton balls in the sky. The base of each is often flat and has distinct outlines in which the top has rounded towers. Colors range from white to light gray. They may be only 330 feet above the ground. 

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Also, if a cloud contains more ice particles than water droplets or all ice particles, like Cirrus clouds, it appears “fluffy.” It gives them a wispy, thin white appearance when the wind blows these ice crystals.

Do Clouds Last Forever?

Clouds do not last or float forever. If the surrounding air warms up, then the air can contain the cloud’s moisture as vapor, and the cloud will disappear. Sometimes, the cloud becomes so large and moist that the water droplets present in the cloud stick to each other and grow bigger in size as well.

Can You Touch the Clouds on a Mountain?

The simple and straightforward answer is “yes,” but we will get into it. Clouds are water vapor. Clouds look fluffy, and we find them fun to play with, but they are actually made of trillions of “cloud droplets.” if you were to be able to touch a cloud, it wouldn’t really feel like anything but just a little wet.

If you count feeling water vapor in the air as touching clouds, and if you consider it a cloud rather than fog when you are standing in it, then you can possibly touch clouds from a mountain.

Do Clouds Exist in Outer Space?

Extraterrestrial Clouds or clouds in outer space do exist. For instance, clouds on Jupiter are divided into three bands in the planet’s atmosphere. At about 50 kilometers above the surface of the planet, the highest band is present, and it is mostly clear.

Jupiter’s middle layer of clouds is constantly moving. These storm clouds look like bands and swirls of red, yellow, and brown. The majority of these clouds are composed of droplets of ammonia and ammonia crystals mixed with sulfur and phosphorus. (Note: Such ammonia storms would be toxic on planet Earth)

Some astrophysicists believe that there could be a thin layer of water clouds beneath Jupiter’s thick layer of ammonia clouds. They also think that there may be water clouds since bursts of lightning have been spotted in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

What Are Interstellar Clouds?

Interstellar clouds lie between planets and stars in space, but they are not precisely clouds. In fact, interstellar clouds are areas where both gases and plasma are dense and visible.

By carefully analyzing the light or radiation that comes from them, astronomers can determine what elements are present in interstellar clouds. Most interstellar clouds are composed of helium, oxygen and hydrogen. A common example is the dusty “milk” of the Milky Way, an interstellar cloud between the stars of our galaxy.

Sonia Madaan is a writer and founding editor of the science education blog EarthEclipse. She loves writing on topics related to space, environment, chemistry, biology, geology and geography. When she is not writing, she loves watching sci-fi movies on Netflix.