CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

How Much Does a Cloud Weigh?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Reader Jane wrote in to note that clouds look so nice and fluffy and lighter-than-air, so they certainly can’t weigh much. Right? 

When Peggy LeMone was in junior high, a friend’s dad pondered that same question, and she kept it in the back of her mind for years. Now all grown up, LeMone is a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and she’s figured out an answer. Today, she shares her cloud-weighing technique with us. 

First, figure out how dense the cloud is. Scientists have measured the water density of a typical cumulus cloud (the white, fluffy ones you see on a nice day) as 1/2 gram per cubic meter—about a small marble’s worth of water in a space you and a friend could comfortably sit in. The density will be greater for different types of clouds. 

Next, figure out how big the cloud is. By measuring a cloud’s shadow when the sun is directly above it, you can get an idea of its width. LeMone does this by watching her odometer as she drives under a cloud. A typical cumulus, she says, is about a kilometer across, and usually roughly cubical—so a kilometer long and a kilometer tall, too. This gives you a cloud that’s one billion cubic meters in volume. 

Do the math with the density and volume to determine the total water content of the cloud. In this case, it's 500,000,000 grams of water, or 1.1 million pounds. That’s a lot of weight to wrap your head around, so LeMone suggests putting it in more familiar terms, like elephants. That cloud weighs about as much as 100 elephants. If you’re a Democrat and you’re feeling partisan, she says, you could substitute 2500 donkeys. If you care more for dinosaurs than politics, you could also say the cloud weighs about as much as 33 apatosauruses.

If all those elephants or donkeys or dinosaurs were hanging out in the sky, they’d fall. So how does a several-hundred-ton cloud stay afloat? For one thing, the weight isn’t concentrated in a hundred elephant-sized particles or even a billion marble-sized ones. It’s distributed among trillions of really tiny water droplets spread out over a really big space. Some of these droplets are so small that you would need a million of them to make one raindrop, and gravity’s effect on them is pretty negligible. 

What’s more, the cloud is less dense than dry air, so it's buoyant. It also helps that all those little droplets get some lift from updrafts of warm air. Those droplets don’t float forever, though. When the cloud’s water density increases and the droplets get bigger and heavier, the cloud eventually does fall, bit by little bit, in the form of rain. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
iStock

Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
iStock
iStock

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios