Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Live with your head in the clouds: Gavin Pretor-Pinney at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha
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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Why do clouds get such a bad rap? In English, when someone’s sad or depressed, they’re “under a cloud.” When there’s bad news in store, there’s “a cloud on the horizon.” It’s everyone’s default doom-and-gloom metaphor. But, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, has one message for you: Clouds are awesome.

Whatever happened to the days we spent as children, gazing at clouds for hours on end? Says Pretor-Pinney, those days don’t have to be over. Nature’s own Rorschach blots, clouds often tell us what we’re thinking about. Aristophanes called clouds “the patron goddesses of idle fellows.” Pretor-Pinney reminds us: To tune into the clouds is to calm down, slow down.

Consider these awesome and rare clouds:

Ryan Verwest : Mt Rainier, Washington, US
Photo: Ryan Verwest : Mt Rainier, Washington, US

Lenticularis clouds are formed when winds are forced to rise to pass over a mountain and become wave-like. These seem to hover in place. Fun fact: Many early black-and-white photos of UFOs are actually photos of lenticularis clouds.

Danny McNeal : Sacramento, California, US
Photo: Danny McNeal : Sacramento, California, US

Another cool rare cloud is the fallstreak hole. It looks like a hole cut out of the cloud, made of water droplets that freeze in one region and then set off a chain reaction so that ice crystals fall below with jellyfish-like tendrils.

Lauraine Ayers-Briel : Maui, Hawaii, US
Photo: Lauraine Ayers-Briel / Maui, Hawaii, US

A super-rare cloud: The Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud, which looks like breaking waves because of shearing winds. The wind above the clouds has a different speed than the wind below it, causing an undulation of air in between.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

And rare clouds aren’t the only ones that are beautiful. “Clouds,” says Pretor-Pinney, are “an expression of the majestic architecture of our atmosphere. But from below they are the embodiment of the powerful, elemental force and power that drives our atmosphere.” Cloud-watching doesn’t have a purpose and won’t help you solve any of the world’s problems — but that’s precisely why it’s so important. To breathe, relax and see the wonder in the mundane. “You don’t need to rush off away from the familiar, across the world, to be surprised,” says Pretor-Pinney. “You just need to step outside.”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here »