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
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Sun October 27, 2013
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT