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News article created on 10 October 2014

Cloud spotting on the canals

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society. “Being a cloudspotter is about stopping what you’re doing and appreciating it,” he says.

Are canals good places to watch the skies?

Yes. When you're walking along a canal you get into a different pace, in which you're more connected to your physical surrounding so it’s also one where you’re liable to observe the movements of the sky. Walking along a canal or river feels like the right frame of mind to appreciate clouds, to see what’s going on.

What would you say to a novice who wants to start watching the clouds on the towpath?

Knowing the names of things isn’t essential but it can help. A good place to start would be to know the types you probably remember from school. Cumulus are the clumpy ones like on The Simpsons. Cirrus are high clouds, made of ice crystals, and they look like brush strokes across the blue. Then of course there’s the storm cloud, the Cumulonimbus. These look very tall and spread out at the top to form an anvil shape. Get to know some of these basic types and you can keep your eyes open for more unusual ones, like the Kelvin-Helmholtz.

What else might you find in the sky?

Everyone’s very familiar with the rainbow, partly because it’s within our field of vision and also because they tend to occur when you get dramatic lighting effects: dark cloud with a sheet of rain and sunlight on it. Pretty much as frequent are sun dogs, which are spots of light with red coloration on the side which can appear to the side of the sun when it’s low in the sky. If you look directly above a sun dog, you can sometimes see a circumzenithal arc, which is like an upside down segment of a rainbow. 

Do clouds form differently over a canal?

Large areas of water, like a lake affect the sky above it, but a canal? Probably not. Canals are fairly still, though, so you get reflections. Anglers are often upside down cloud spotters because they’re looking down into the water and seeing the clouds from a different perspective. 

Are there any canals near where you live?

There’s a river. And across the Somerset Levels there are man-made watercourses, like Sedgemoore Drain, that takes water out to sea. I went on a barge holiday with friends once. We went across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It was quite a competitive bunch of friends and I remember playing Mastermind and thinking that this is totally wrong for just drifting along, having a relaxing time. It was quite weird living in one dimension, just going backwards and forwards along a line. It’s good for the soul to move along at that pace. It’s rare these days. 

What’s the most interesting or lovely thing you’ve seen in the sky recently?

I gave a talk recently in Arizona. There had been completely blue skies and not a cloud in the sky for days, and then I gave my talk. All the other speakers were all really high-powered, like Bill Clinton and Snoop Dogg. A hurricane had been coming up the Baja peninsula and we came out to this amazing sky of clouds caught in the rosy rays of the dying sun and they were towering up above the distance. There were Cumulus congestus, and Altocumulus catching the warm colours of the sun and everyone felt like I had some amazing connection and had managed to pull some strings, which was a good bit of luck. Clouds never do what you want them to do. They are the embodiment of chaos and that makes it more special when something beautiful or surprising happens in the sky. 

Interview: Emma Warren


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