Reading the Skyscape


Summer solstice at Lakes of the Clouds
Photo credit: Whitney McCann

“But meanwhile, what of the basic meaning of clouds—what is their role in the life of the earth?  For us, as living creatures, they are one of the reasons we are men instead of fishes.  As land creatures, we must have water.  Without clouds, all water would remain forever in the sea.”

--Rachael Carson, “Something About the Sky,” CBS Omnibus.  March 11, 1957.






“Go-oood morning, everybody.  I have your weather report!” announces the hut “croo” at 7:15 AM and the breakfast chatter stops.  How bad? How wet? hikers want to know.  “Cloudy with a chance of rain—possible thunderstorms, some severe” they might say, and people look out to the sky.

Cumulus clouds at the AT
road crossing on Route 16
Photo credit: Whitney McCann
What do the clouds tell us?  The familiar Cumulus cloud is the buoyant cotton ball with the gray underside that looks painted on the skyscape, an afterthought on blue canvas.  It is the low-lying peaceful drifter that fascinated Georgia O’Keeffe.  Forming at altitudes of less than 6,500 feet, it is a good companion for the ridges of the White Mountains that are about its height.  

Cumulonimbus clouds
off the Davis Path
Photo credit: Whitney Mccann
There are four species of Cumulus clouds (humilis; mediocris; fractus; and congestus).  For anyone using the sky to predict the weather, the cumulo congestus is the species to know.  Puff upon expanding puff cumulo congestus clouds grow up and are the foundation for the dense Cumulonimbus, the cloud with the stormy insides that is no friend to someone on a ridge.

Three times higher than the Cumulus clouds are the wispy Cirrus clouds.  18,000 feet up these icy high clouds accompany fair weather and usually indicate that there will be a change in weather within 24 hours.

Here in the Whites the clouds are the backdrop, the frame, and the curtain of the mountains.  They decide what we are able to see, what we may predict about precipitation and wind direction, and thus which decisions we make about whether and where to hike.  Consult the Mount Washington Observatory’s forecast before hiking, and once afoot, do look up.