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The Heights of Clouds

Naturevolume 32pages630631 (1885) | Download Citation



FROM the Upsala Observatory comes an account of fairly exact measurements of the heights of clouds during the summer of last year, and a very interesting publication it is. It appears that when the circumpolar expeditions were planned the Swedish Meteorological Observatory furnished their station at Spitzbergen with three theodolites, of a somewhat novel though simple construction, for the double purpose of observing the altitude of the aurora and that of clouds. The difficulty that has always been felt in such observations has been that of easy intercommunication between the different observers, so as to fix on the particular part of the cloud of which the height was to be measured. Thanks to modern invention this difficulty was got over by connecting each station with a telephone. The reported good results obtained at the circumpolar station—the publication of which, by the by, has not been done as yet—induced Herr Hildebrandsson, the director of the meteorological observatory at Upsala, to commence a set of similar observations there. On a couple of pillars, about 450 yards apart, and placed on an approximately north and south line, a couple of theodolites were erected, the stations being connected by telephones. The theodolites employed may be described as ordinary theodolites, the object glass of the telescope being replaced by a large open ring, across which were stretched a couple of cross wires, whilst the eye-piece consisted of a simple hole of 3mm. in diameter. When observing near the sun dark glasses would be placed in front of this orifice. As might be expected, there are several unavoidable errors in using these instruments, the principal of which are the uncertainty of an identical point in a cloud being measured at each station, and the want of synchronism of the observation—a very important point when clouds are travelling with any speed. The method of observation was somewhat laborious, and was as follows. The two observers, each at a theodolite, agreed as well as they could on the point in the cloud to be observed, and at a particular time, fixed upon in advance, brought the cross wires on this somewhat indefinite spot, and then read their instruments, noted the time of observation, described the cloud, and if possible sketched it. A second observation of the same point gave the direction and rate of motion of the cloud. Perhaps one of the most easily observed clouds is the cumulus, and we find from a table given that the probable error of observation is very considerable. Thus, in one whose height was calculated to be 1,639 metres, the probable error of one observation was 748 metres, and of the mean of 16 observations 187. Out of 101 observations the mean height of a cumulus was 1,690 metres, and the probable error of the mean 40 metres. The labour to attain even such accuracy is very great. The surprise is that at Upsala they did not adopt a photographic theodolite such as is now, we believe, in daily use at Kew. In the Kew “nephographs,” as they are called, the telescope is replaced by a camera, and the observations do not involve half the labour of eye-observations. For instance, when the two nephographs are in a fixed position the manipulations are simplicity itself. One observer telephones to the other the cloud whose height it is desired to ascertain. By means of a very simple pointer both direct their cameras to the cloud, having inserted a dry plate in position. The lenses are closed by shutters, both of which can be opened and then closed with any desired rapidity by an electrical arrangement from one station. The exposures are thus made simultaneously, and the photograph must include every point in the cloud. The position of the cloud is fixed by crossed lines etched on a glass plate which is in contact with the dry plate, and which always occupies the same position, and from these cross lines, which are impressed on the two negatives, any desired point is measured. The readings of the graduated circles of the nephoscope having been taken the height and distance of the cloud is readily calculated. It might be supposed that considerable errors might be made even with this arrangement as the solid angular distance included is somewhere about 55°, and the objects within this are impressed on a plate less than six inches square. As a matter of fact, such is not the case. Measurements of objects a couple of miles off, and at known distances from the observer, have been observed with an error of less than 1 percent., a base of 250 yards having been used—an accuracy which is far greater than could be obtained by eye-observations when the object to be observed is uncertain in outline, and when there is no definitely fixed point to observe. It must not, however, be supposed that there are no difficulties in photographing clouds of every description. It requires, for instance, a keen judgment to hit off the exposure necessary to differentiate between the white clouds in the higher regions the pale blue sky against which they are projected. All such difficulties are to be overcome with practice. It is to be hoped that before long the Upsala Observatory will adopt such a plan as we have indicated, when the results they obtain will be even more valuable and be less laboriously attained than they are at present.


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    "Mesures des Hauteurs et des Mouvements des Nuages." Par N. Ekholm et K. L. Hagström .

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