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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT