Reading Clouds

Climbing into the San Gabriels on a Saturday in May 2016, we drove into clouds. From the outside, it seemed like the transition from sky to cloud would be crisp, but it turned out to be an ambiguous passage. Spray appeared on the windshield. Light fog gathered. What seemed opaque from the outside was in fact filmy.


In The Marvelous Clouds (2015), John Durham Peters makes a case for taking nonhuman matter as an object of media studies, a field that considers how modes of communication inflect and embody meaning. In arguing that entities like fire, water, stars, and clouds bear critical attention, Peters defines media broadly as “ensembles of natural element and human craft” (3). His ideas push against a line of reasoning articulated by Walter Benn Michaels and David Knapp in their 1982 essay “Against Theory,” in which the two men insist that in order for meaning to exist, a conscious entity must intend communication. Peters, alongside many New Materialist thinkers, wants to broaden the relay points of intention so that more loosely and widely inscribed constellations of intentionality can register as such. As to the meaning of meaning, he reasons, “If we mean mental content intentionally designed to say something to someone, then of course clouds and fire don’t communicate. But if we mean repositories of readable data and processes that sustain and enable existence, then of course clouds and fire have meaning” (4). Atmospheric scientists are interested in reading clouds vis a vis climate change, specifically in trying to predict how the shifts in global temperature regimes will interact with cloud formation and vice versa. There is an extensive and rigorous science of clouds (including a bad-ass specialization called cloud microphysics, which reads clouds at the droplet level).

Low clouds near the surface of the earth have close to the same temperature as the earth’s surface, particularly at their bottoms. These clouds reflect radiative (solar) heat back into space, much like polar ice (aka the albedo effect). As a bonus, they emit the infrared they absorb from the earth’s surface from their tops at nearly the same rate an uncovered patch of earth would, since they’re close to the same temperature. More low clouds mean less warming. High clouds, by contrast, are cold and tend to be wispy, so they don’t have much albedo. They absorb upwelling infrared, but their coldness means that they don’t emit much from their tops. More high clouds mean more warming.

Changes in the global temperature regime will certainly have an effect on clouds, but this effect is devilishly difficult to predict or quantify. While the albedo effect of ice (which is solid, massive, and fairly stable) is relatively easy to predict, the size and transience of clouds make them a vexing unknown. There are thirty or so predominant climate models trying to predict the effect of rising levels of carbon in the atmosphere on the “global energy budget,” or how much energy exits the earth’s atmosphere versus how much enters it. The grids of these models are something like fifty kilometers on a side, but the dimensions of cumulus clouds are fractions of a kilometer. Shrinking the models’ grids by half (twenty-five kilometers to a side) would take ten times the computational time, and even such an increase in the resolution of the model would not be small enough to account for clouds. To shrink the model down to cloud-sized grids would mean that the computations could not run much faster than real time; in other words, to get results on how cloud patterns will have changed by 2030 might take decades to complete. The computational time would make it useless for extended climate prediction.

If the models are messy, so are the technics of reading. One tool is satellites, which can measure cloud surface area, temperatures, water, optical thickness, and aerosols. But in a way these aren’t really measurements. The satellites records the patterns of photon from the earth’s surface; in order to make that pattern mean something, scientists have to use mathematical models to elicit (or “retrieve”) data such as temperature readings. What the satellite does is somewhere between measurement and model. It’s reading in the humanistic sense of the word: using established and learned interpretive parameters to translate signals into meaning. Reading clouds – reading anything – is a complicated, subjective process heavily informed by an array of usually invisible strategies and assumptions.

When we arrived at Bandido, the clouds had receded. We didn’t notice them again until sunset, when light slanted between cloud strata, turning the clusters around the lower peaks carnival pink. Later that night while we were sitting around the campfire, I looked up to see thin silver clouds passing over the night sky. Instead of clouds, now the clear night was sheltering us and pressing us together around the fire. While Son the Elder led off round after round of ghost stories, Son the Younger yearned for sleep. Eventually we withdrew to the clearing where we’d set up camp. We could hear faint laughter and guitar music and see flaring campfires ranged around us like near stars.

When we woke in the morning, the clouds had settled in Bandido’s wide basin. They were thick but bright with diffused light. While the previous night the entire campground had seemed so near, girdled around us protectively like the ecliptic, now even our own group’s firepit lay out of sight, shrouded in skymatter, visible weather, aerosol water droplets made heavy by the night’s chill. We lay in our tents, enjoying the feeling of our backs on the earth while heaven kissed our faces.

By the time we got coffee going on the Coleman stove, the sun was slanting into the site, sending birds into a clamor and inspiring the dogs  – Felix and Porkchop – to roll and tussle in Bandido’s gullies. We didn’t think about clouds again until we were driving home, descending from the cloud zone. Son the Younger, watching the wisps and plumes skate by us, wondered if you could measure how fast they moved.

Son the Elder; Felix swishing his tail on the left

Knowing definite things about clouds is pretty hard but continuing to think about them seems important to our ecological moment of danger. They remind us of how little we actually know, how the vast array of our technological apparatuses can proliferate uncertainties or can prompt us to think that we know what we don’t actually know. Scientific and humanistic inquiry try to increase the resolution with which we can see the lines between what we know and what we don’t know. They act as mechanisms to link our power to our abjectness, to all that limits that power. Thoreau writes of our ultimate vulnerability as embodied beings when he pictures a no-nonsense businessman reluctantly “committing himself to uncertainties” every night. This man is led by the trivial powers he exerts over people and daytime happenings to forget the power death always holds over him: “[The laboring man] has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?” (3). This is Thoreau’s reading of our lives under the regime of capitalistic consumption, the getting and spending that Wordsworth also bemoaned. Growth (and not in the economic sense) requires that we remember well our ignorance and the uncertainty to which we are always subject.

As I wrote this, I kept looking for ways that clouds tied into the narrative of my family’s weekend, ways they helped to mediate aspects of our human relatedness, but, true to form, they remained more or less in the background, “just” weather, slightly more noticeable because we were physically closer to it than usual. Clouds are like climate change: difficult to notice  (though getting easier all the time) unless you look in particular ways, tricky to measure, certainly linked to human actions but nearly impossible to control. Clouds and climate remind us of the limitations on human will and knowledge and the ambiguity of boundaries that divide us from what appear to be outside us.


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