Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why you should keep your head in the clouds

By Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Special to CNN
October 27, 2013 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gavin Pretor-Pinney: Clouds entrance kids, but for adults are often metaphors for gloom
  • But he says they are one of the most diverse, evocative, poetic parts of nature.
  • He says scientists puzzled by what clouds can tell about predicting future climate change
  • Pretor-Pinney: In frenzied age, cloudspotting legitimately, blissfully allows us to do nothing

Editor's note: Gavin Pretor-Pinney is founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society and co-founder of The Idler magazine. He is the author of The Cloudspotter's Guide and The Cloud Collector's Handbook. He spoke at TEDGlobal 2013 in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- Clouds intrigued me as a boy. I was curious about what they were made of, how they got up in the sky and what it would be like to sit on one. I also thought they looked beautiful.

Kids are often entranced by clouds. Unfortunately, such positive feelings rarely endure into adulthood. As we grow up, we start to moan about clouds.

We consider them as metaphors for doom and gloom, describing someone who's depressed as "having a cloud hanging over them" and bad news in store as "a cloud on the horizon."

Watch Gavin Pretor-Pinney's TED Talk

Clouds get a bad press. That's why, a few years ago, I started the Cloud Appreciation Society. It exists to remind people that, far from being things to complain about, clouds are among of the most diverse, evocative, and poetic parts of nature.

TED.com: Sculpting waves in wood and time

Pretor-Pinney: Cloudy with a chance of joy

It must be because they are so commonplace, so ubiquitous, so everyday, that we become blind to the beauty of clouds. We only tend to notice them when they block out the sun. So they come to represent the annoying obstructions in life, the things that get in the way.

Our feelings about the weather are often articulated as if there is a battle between the sun and the clouds -- between good weather and cloudy weather. Such an opposition is, of course, just projection. The sun's energy powers the very movement of air around our atmosphere that causes clouds to form. "The most beautiful thing in Nature," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "is the sun reflected from a tearful cloud."

TED.com: Tom Shannon on anti-gravity sculpture

Not only should we appreciate clouds more, we also need to understand them better. The recent fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change includes one conclusion that all sides of the climate change debate can agree on. This is that the one factor contributing the greatest uncertainty in scientists' attempts to predict future global temperatures is the clouds.

They have a huge and complex effect on the flow of energy to and from our planet, sometimes reflecting away the sun's heat, sometimes trapping in Earth's warmth. Scientists still don't understand enough about the formation of clouds to predict with confidence how cloud cover will be affected by changing atmospheric conditions. Without knowing that, they can neither be sure how the clouds will amplify future changes in global temperatures and nor make confident predictions about our climate in decades to come.

But on the ground, in the meantime, the pleasures of cloudspotting, are all about the here and now. There is a satisfaction in learning to recognize the different types of cloud, from the fair-weather cumulus to the high, wispy cirrus, the fierce cumulonimbus storm cloud and the many other rare, unusual and fleeting cloud forms.

TED.com: Nature, beauty, gratitude

Finding shapes in the clouds is an aimless, carefree pastime that we adults should also do more of. The digital age conspires to make us feel busier than ever. Cloudspotting, by contrast, is an activity that legitimizes doing nothing.

These days, we need excuses to do nothing. Happiness comes not from a desperate search for stimulation elsewhere but from finding what is intriguing, surprising and "exotic" in the everyday stuff around us. You don't need to cross the world to be amazed. You just need to step outside and look up, every now and then, as if you are seeing the sky for the first time.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT