Cloud Types

Clouds are given different names based on their shape and their height in the sky. Some clouds are puffy like cotton while others are grey and uniform. Some clouds are near the ground, while others are near the top of the troposphere. The diagram on the right shows where different types of clouds are located in the sky.

How Are Clouds Classified?

Most clouds can be divided into groups (high/middle/low) based on the height of the cloud's base above the Earth's surface. Other clouds are grouped not by their height, but by their unique characteristics, such as those that form over mountains (lenticular clouds) or beneath existing clouds (mammatus clouds).

Cloud types by their level in the atmosphere including high clouds (cirrostratus, cirrocumulus, and cirrus), middle-level clouds (altostratus and altocumulus), and low clouds (stratus, stratocumulus, cumulus, and nimbostratus). Cumulonimbus clouds grow vertically from low to high altitudes within the troposphere.

There are many different types of clouds, each with a unique shape and location in the sky.

UCAR/L.S. Gardiner

The table below provides information about cloud groups and any cloud types associated with them. Click on the cloud images in the table to learn more about each cloud type.

Cloud Group and Height*

Cloud Types

High Clouds

5 - 13 km (16,000 - 43,000 ft)

See also noctilucent clouds, which are high above clouds associated with weather

Cirrus clouds Cirrocumulus clouds Cirrostratus clouds

Middle Clouds

2 - 7 km (7,000 - 23,000 ft)

Altocumulus clouds Altostratus clouds  

Low Clouds

Surface - 2 km (surface - 7,000 ft)

Stratus clouds Stratocumulus clouds Nimbostratus clouds

Clouds with Vertical Growth

Surface - 13 km (surface - 43,000 ft)

Clouds that grow up instead of spreading out across the sky.

Cumulus clouds Cumulonimbus clouds  

Unusual Clouds

Clouds that form in unique ways and are not grouped by height

Lenticular clouds Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds Mammatus clouds


5 - 13 km (16,000 - 43, 000 ft)

Clouds formed at the altitudes jet aircraft fly



*Cloud heights in the table above are for the mid-latitudes. In the polar regions, the top of the troposphere is lower, so clouds are lower. In the tropics, the top of the troposphere is higher, so clouds are higher. A few other clouds are found in higher layers of the atmosphere. Polar stratospheric clouds are located in a layer of the atmosphere called the stratosphere. Polar mesospheric clouds, which are also called noctilucent clouds, are located in the atmospheric layer called the mesosphere.