Inside the sky. An awakening to where we live.


My first day back at work for the new year and Melbourne’s CBD is damp with intermittent drizzle from low hanging stratus cloud, with some smoke haze mixed in for good measure.

Low cloud and smoke haze obscures tall buildings in Melbourne's CBD on 6 Jan 2020.

Last year, I would simply have said it was miserable weather. Especially for summer. But this is four-seasons-in-one-day Melbourne.

However, during my end-of-year break I became somewhat enamoured of cloud spotting. As a result, I’m now much more particular about noticing exactly what kind of clouds are passing above.

I joined the Cloud Appreciation Society (check out the manifesto) and downloaded the CloudSpotter App for my phone. In little more than a week I’ve logged images of eight of the 10 main cloud types, although only one of the other 30 special clouds and optical effects listed. I don’t always get it right, but I’m learning.

Photos: Catherine Norwood, Brad Collis, Christine Fotis

And as Coretext frequently writes about fisheries and agriculture, which are both intimately connected to weather conditions and climate, upping my expertise in this area will be a good thing. Clouds are very instructive.

Responding to my new cloud obsession, my colleague Gio Braidotti (that’s Doctor Gio) tells me that the Indian Ocean Diopole (IOD) index has moved from positive towards neutral. This is a good thing.

Gio explains it like this: When the index is positive it means the waters of the Indian Ocean are colder than normal. This creates a kind of ‘atmospheric wall’ allowing a dome of hot air to sit over Australia causing extensive drought and the nightmare bushfire season this summer.

But in the first week of 2020, the IOD moved back to neutral. Normally this would happen in spring. Gio says it means the ‘wall’ is breaking up allowing monsoons to bring cooler, wetter conditions to the continent, and, we hope, end the drought and lessen the fire risk.

It also leaves me wondering about, and anticipating, new types of clouds associated with the changing conditions. (I note that the CloudSpotter App does not include pyrocumulus among its special clouds – the awful, awesome, cloud that forms as a result of intense fires, such as those wreaking devastation along Australia’s east coast.

These clouds belong to the ‘terrifying’ category, and, personally, I don’t ever need to be close enough to be taking photos to prove I've seen it.)

Pyrocumulus cloud forming in response to a fire in Mundaring, Western Australia. Image: Evan Collis

Learning about clouds is bringing me a new perspective, on weather, on climate, and on our atmosphere – the gaseous bubble, lest we forget, that allows life on this planet to exist. In a TED talk, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, describes cloud spotting as “a visceral connection” to our atmosphere: “We don’t live beneath the sky, we live within it.”

This is what draws me; the sense of connection within this living space shared by all of humanity. It’s also a kind of meditation open to everyone, every day, says Pretor-Pinney: “Cloud spotting legitimises doing nothing. And sometimes we need excuses to do nothing. We need to be reminded … that slowing down and being in the present … it’s good for you.”

Well, I’m on board. Looking ahead to 2020, a year that has already started in tumult, it might be good advice for us all.


For more information on cloud spotting: https://cloudappreciationsociety.org

Catherine Norwood is a senior writer and editor at Coretext a leading provider of science and research journalism, writing, design and production services that help bring complex ideas to industry and general audiences.


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