Friday 23 October 2020

The Cloudspotter's Guide | Gavin Pretor-Pinney #NonFiction

Non-fiction reads are usually a labour of love for me. I start them in a fit of passion and enthusiasm, that then waxes and wanes with my mood, time and other interests. 

I ask you to cast your minds back to a time before Covid. A world safe and secure from disease and disaster, when all was calm and peaceful. Yeah, right!

How quickly we forget the traumas and tribulations that concerned us when things were 'normal'.

Back on the 8th January, I was feeling rather distressed by three months of bushfire smoke. Sydney had been surrounded by out of control fires to the north, south and west. It didn't matter which way the wind blew, we were shrouded in smoke and ash. I hadn't seen blue skies or clouds for months. I began to feel desperate for the sight of just one white fluffy cloud! The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney called my name, or more precisely the lovely cover by Paul Catherall drew me into it's promise of fair days ahead once more.

I read the first half in a fit of smoky sorrow, seeking the stars and more predictable skies. 
But then Covid happened. My reading habits changed. My passions and interests and moods changed. I grew less concerned about blue skies and clouds, and more focused on the invisible germs floating in the air around us.

It has only been with the advent of Spring, warmer weather and the easing of Covid concerns in NSW,  that I raised my eyes to the heavens once again.

I've always been a bit of an amateur cloudspotter.

My interest started when I was about 10. I was required to do a project on the cloud types for school. At the time, I had an uncle who worked for the water board. One of his daily duties was to check the meteorological equipment. He provided me with sheets of information about clouds. I've always loved sorting and classifying stuff, so my 10 yr old self was amazed, then impressed that someone, or multiple someone's, had watched the clouds for so long that there was now a whole system of precise classification and labelling for me to learn.

I have spent many hours trying to find shapes in the clouds. I also found during my teaching years, that cloud gazing was a fabulous way to calm anxious or frenetic classes. 

Recent social media tags have given me the joy of following #cloudporn and our house in the mountains has introduced me to the joys of watching the mist ebb and flow through the gum trees. The Cloudspotter's Guide was simply waiting for the right time to jump out of my TBR pile.

Pretor-Pinney has created a lovely looking book for those of us devoted to gazing at the skies. The book aims to provide the facts about 'all the delightful and eccentric characters in the cloud family' for the general reader. He has included poems and charts and pictures in a glorious 'celebration of the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloudspotting.' 


In 2004 he started The Cloud Appreciation Society

There is a cloudspotter's Manifesto and lovely wood engravings gracing the first page of each chapter by Bill Sanderson. Myths, legends, religious beliefs and stories about clouds are littered throughout the facts and figures.

I learnt a lot too.
  • For instance, there's the incredible story of Lt-Col William Rankin, a pilot who had to eject from his plane at a height of 47 000 ft, to only get stuck with his parachute and light-weight summer clothes, in the violent, swirling updrafts of a cumulonimbus storm cloud for 40 mins. He was battered by hailstones at -50℃, deafened by thunderclaps and almost struck by lightning. He managed to survive the decompression, the fall and the storm without any broken bones, with only some bruising and frostbite.
  • Lightning heats the air around it instantaneously to 27 000℃!
  • There is no difference between sheet and fork lightning. All lightning is fork lightning; sheet lightning is simply lightning hiding behind the clouds and illuminating said cloud from behind.
  • The main way to classify lightning is by where the bolt goes. To the ground or in-cloud are the most common possibilities, but there's also cloud-to-cloud lightning and cloud-to-air.
  • The main difference between fog and mist is that if you can see less than 1km through, it's fog - between 1-2km's, it's mist. They are both earth-bound stratus clouds.
  • You can also have advection fog (sea fog), radiation fog, steam fog (Arctic sea smoke), upslope fog, valley fog, freezing fog and ice fog.

  • When the sun is low on the horizon, the high clouds will be bright white, the middle clouds golden and the lowest clouds will be red.
  • Rainbows are not the only 'optical delights' - there are double bows, cloudbows, fogbows and a glory, which can appear around the head of a cloudspotter's shadow.
  • Contrails are man-made clouds. Scientists are studying the environmental impact of contrails. After 9/11 and the three day no flights period, they realised that contrails 'reduced ground temperatures during the day and raised them at night.' Which made me wonder what might be happening to our skies and temperatures now that flights have been drastically reduced during Covid. Turns out that the scientists are asking this question too
  • And Morning Glory! Not a cocktail or a pretty flower, but an amazing cloud formation almost guaranteed to be seen near Burketown, NT between the end of Sept and the morning. A favourite with glider pilots who like to surf the warm currents.

The Cloudspotter's Guide is definitely a keeper.


  1. I'm not usually a science person but this sounds so interesting! I do love looking at clouds though it's harder now that I'm in a heavily populated area with a lot more buildings. And I love the woodcut illustrations, are they from the book or did you find them elsewhere?

    1. Yes, these are Sanderson's woodcut illustrations that grace the beginning of each new chapter.
      It does get science-y in places, but it is most conversational and anecdotal in style. easy to dip in and out of and the kind of book I will now keep near the verandah door, so I can pull it out to check what I'm looking at :-)


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