Weather Center

What Clouds Can Tell You About Coming Storms

By Paula Felps 4.9.13

Ominous clouds are often your best identifier of an incoming storm. Knowing which ones mean trouble is brewing can help keep you and your family safe from sudden storms.

Many clouds that look dangerous are not, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and funnel clouds are often mistaken for tornadoes. NOAA has even started a Scary Looking Cloud Club to help people identify and understand the various types of clouds.

Clouds are constantly moving, and when storm clouds are dark and moving rapidly, they may often be mistaken for more dangerous types of clouds. These are the ones to watch out for:

  • Shelf clouds. Often at the leading edge of a thunderstorm, shelf clouds get their name from their tiered appearance created by the rising motion within it. Shelf clouds often are accompanied by strong winds.
  • Wall clouds. An isolated formation building beneath the base of a cloud, wall clouds are usually found in the area of a storm’s strongest updraft. Most strong tornadoes are formed from wall clouds, but not all wall clouds will become a tornado — however, if you see one, take it seriously.
  • Funnel clouds. Even though we hear this term every storm season and many mistakenly interchange their name with tornadoes, funnel clouds are actually not very common. They are funnel-shaped clouds that don’t have contact with the ground. A tornado is not a cloud; it is a violently rotating column of air extending from the cloud base to the ground. In many cases, though, a tornado is made visible by a funnel cloud.

NOAA says that while people should not “be fooled by scary looking clouds,” they also need to know which clouds are potentially dangerous. Because of that, they recommend that each family become more weather-ready and educated about what to do when storms approach — and to know how to look to the skies for telltale signs.

When you’re in doubt about a coming storm, there are plenty of resources to rely on. Download these apps so you can keep the weather forecast in your pocket at all times.

© 2013 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance