Photos—Cloud Appreciation Society
Every day, members of the Cloud Appreciation Society publish images of clouds from the four corners of the world. Their mission: to take inventory of the sky’s moods. Cloudspotters communicate through a discussion forum where they plan future “Sky Gatherings.” Group expeditions and scientific and artistic conferences are organized in this way for the association’s 40,000 members. Each day, photos are uploaded to an app where “hunters” can rack up points and badges for each correct identification: cumulonimbus, stratocumulus, altocumulus, cirrostratus, nimbostratus, and so on. In 2019 the society received nearly 50,000 image submissions.
Because each family of clouds includes infinite possible variations, cloudspotters wait for unusual and eye-catching combinations to share with the community. Who says watching the sky for familiar shapes is only for children?
“We think that they are nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”
Photo: Katherine Fischer
Founded in 2005 by British cloudspotter Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the Cloud Appreciation Society does more than just bring together lovers of the sky. It also promotes a shared understanding of the atmosphere by way of its most familiar expression: clouds. Historically, science has often relied on groups, like this one, made up of passionate observers. Meteorology already counts on a worldwide network of curious citizen-scientists to identify types of clouds and classify them according to a well-established system. The acknowledgment of new phenomena is more complex however, as Pretor-Pinney can attest; in 2008, after composing numerous images of an unidentified cloud, he presented his discovery—and proposed a name—to the British Royal Meteorological Society. The asperatus, as he called it, did not pass their test, despite convincing data and the support of the scientific community.
In 2020 Pretor-Pinney decided to use his group in service of an environmental cause: the protection of forests. 90 per cent of the water that evaporates into the atmosphere comes from trees. The Cloud Appreciation Society decided to invest part of its membership revenue into preserving the Amazon, which houses the largest “celestial river” in the world. In particular, the society has announced that it will support monitoring and reporting illegal deforestation.
Photo: Frieder Wolfart
We are entering a time when the miraculous is losing its meaning, Pretor-Pinney told the New York Times in 2016. Surprising, supposedly unbelievable things flood the internet at tremendous speeds: “Well, I’ve just seen a panda doing something extraordinary online,” he joked, “What could possibly amaze me now?” His fascination with clouds has taught him this: our immediate environment is already overflowing with possibilities for wonder.
“We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.”
For members of the Cloud Appreciation Society, clouds encourage everyone to look up from the ground (and the screen). Imagine standing in the midst of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, lifting your eyes and catching a breathtaking formation of stratocumulus clouds. You suddenly realize that there are things much bigger than these buildings—you realize there are things much greater than you. ■