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With summer a mere handful of days away, more and more people will be getting outdoors to enjoy the warmer weather, either at their summer cottage, the local park or for a day at the beach.
One of my favourite memories, when my son and daughter were growing up, are the afternoons we spent lying in a field looking up at the clouds above us and pointing out various shapes. They were usually animals, dragons, castles and other strange creatures and objects that each of us - and often only us - could see in clouds shapes above us. We used to call such a sky a "storybook sky".
While there are numerous types of clouds, depending on the time of year and where in the atmosphere they form, the ones that are best for creating imaginary animals and other strange objects are the white, cottony cumulus clouds.
The part of the Earth's atmosphere where clouds form is called the troposphere, the layer closest to the Earth's surface. Cumulus clouds form in the lowest section of the troposphere, usually at around 6,500 feet or below.
Clouds are basically the visual manifestation of moisture, which has condensed around extremely small dust particles or sea salt in the atmosphere. Depending on the height and temperature of the section of the atmosphere in which it forms, the cloud will take a certain shape. Though some clouds look very thick and solid enough to stand or sit on (who, as a child hasn't wished they could sit on a big, white, puffy summer cloud?), there really is no firm surface to a cloud. Anyone who has flown in a plane through a cloud will attest to it (unfortunately) being nothing more than water vapour.
Nonetheless, the puffy, white, cumulus clouds of summer are one of the real pleasures of the season, and of childhood. Take the time this summer to spend an afternoon with your children, lying out in a hayfield or on the beach, and creating dragons, fairy castles and other mythical beasts in the sky; they (and you) are not likely to forget that afternoon.
Glenn K. Roberts lives in Stratford, P.E.I., and has been an avid amateur astronomer since he was a small child. His column, Atlantic Skies, appears every two weeks. He welcomes comments from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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