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Cumulonimbus clouds

Otherwise known as 'The King of Clouds', cumulonimbus clouds exist through the entire height of the troposphere, usually characterised by their icy, anvil-shaped top.

Symbol: Cumulonimbus cloud symbol

Height of base: 1,100 - 6,500 ft

Shape: Fibrous upper edges, anvil top

Latin: cumulus - heap; nimbus - rainy cloud

Precipitation: Heavy rain and thunderstorms

Cumulonimbus cloud (Photo: Matthew Clark)

What are cumulonimbus clouds?

Cumulonimbus clouds are menacing looking multi-level clouds, extending high into the sky in towers or plumes. More commonly known as thunderclouds, cumulonimbus are the only cloud type that can produce hail, thunder and lighting. The base of the cloud is often flat with a very dark wall like feature hanging underneath, and may only lie a few hundred feet above the Earth's surface. 

How do cumulonimbus clouds form?

Cumulonimbus clouds are born through convection, often growing from small cumulus clouds over a hot surface. They get taller and taller until they represent huge powerhouses, storing the same amount of energy as 10 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs. They can also form along cold fronts as a result of forced convection, where milder air is forced to rise over the incoming cold air.

What weather is associated with cumulonimbus clouds?

Cumulonimbus clouds are associated with extreme weather such as heavy torrential downpours, hail storms, lightning and even tornados. Individual cumulonimbus cells will usually dissipate within an hour once showers start falling, making for short-lived, heavy rain. However multicell or supercell storms contain many cumulonimbus clouds and the intense rainfall may last much longer.

If there is thunder, lightning or hail, the cloud is a cumulonimbus, rather than nimbostratus.

How do we categorise cumulonimbus clouds?

Cumulonimbus clouds have 3 distinct 'species' which describe the appearance of the head of the cloud:

  • Cumulonimbus calvus - The top of the cumulonimbus is puffy, like a cumulus cloud. The water droplets at the top of the cloud tower have not frozen to become ice crystals.
  • Cumulonimbus capillatus - The top of the cloud is fibrous but relatively contained. Water droplets have started to freeze; usually indicating rain has begun or will begin soon.
  • Cumulonimbus incus - The top of the cloud is fibrous and anvil shaped as the cloud has continued to grow. If the cloud reaches the top of the troposphere and still wishes to grow, it must do so outwards, creating the picturesque anvil or 'incus'.

What supplementary features are associated with cumulonimbus clouds?

There are many supplementary features associated with cumulonimbus clouds. If you are interested in finding out more, look at some of the pages below:

Mammatus clouds

Funnel clouds

Arcus clouds

Thunder and lightning

Last updated: Aug 1, 2016 12:39 PM