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Clouds

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A visible mass of liquid water droplets suspended in the atmosphere above Earth's surface. Clouds form in areas where air rises and cools. The condensing water vapor forms small droplets of water (0.012 mm) that, when combined with billions of other droplets, form clouds. Clouds can form along warm and cold fronts, where air flows up the side of the mountain and cools as it rises higher into the atmosphere, and when warm air blows over a colder surface, such as a cool body of water.

Clouds fall into two general categories: sheet-like or layer-looking stratus clouds (stratus means layer) and cumulus clouds (cumulus means piled up). These two cloud types are divided into four more groups that describe the cloud's altitude.

High clouds form above 20,000 feet in the cold region of the troposphere, and are denoted by the prefix CIRRO or CIRRUS. At this altitude water almost always freezes so clouds are composed of ice crystals. The clouds tend to be wispy, are often transparent, and include cirrus, cirrocumulus, and cirrostratus.

Middle clouds form between 6,500 and 20,000 feet and are denoted by the prefix ALTO. They are made of water droplets and include altostratus and altocumulus.

Low clouds are found up to 6,500 feet and include the stratocumulus and nimbostratus clouds. When stratus clouds contact the ground they are called fog.

Vertical clouds, such as cumulus, rise far above their bases and can form at many heights. Cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderheads, can start near the ground and soar up to 75,000 feet.

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