Weather Center

Members Welcome: The Scary Looking Cloud Club

By Paula Felps 4.9.13

Next to your smartphone’s weather app, ominous clouds are often your best identifier of an incoming storm. These days, we are pretty reliant on getting our weather advice from experts — but it’s good to be able to recognize what to look for in a cloud formation. Knowing which ones are dangerous 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 tornados. NOAA has even started a club, the 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, such as:

  • Shelf clouds: Shelf clouds are often at the leading edge of a thunderstorm, and gets its name from the tiered appearance created by the rising motion within it. Shelf clouds often are accompanied by strong winds.
  • Wall clouds. A wall cloud is an isolated formation that builds beneath the base of a cloud. It’s usually the area of the storm’s strongest updraft, and the reason they are alarming is that most strong tornados are formed from wall clouds. It’s important to understand that 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 “tornado,” funnel clouds are actually not very common. They are funnel-shaped clouds that don’t have contact with the ground. A tornado is actually not a cloud; it is a violently rotating column of air that extends from the cloud base to the ground. In many cases, though, a tornado is made visible by a funnel cloud.

While NOAA says 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.