Pink elephants floating by

What’s the most absurd thing you can think of? The concept of pink elephants floating through the sky might spring to mind. The idea of large animals floating in the air is ridiculous because of the sheer weight involved, and yet have you ever considered how massive a cloud actually is?

floating elephants

Picture credit: Art of the Day

A cloud’s mass is spread out in a thin vapor with a density of anywhere from 1/10 of a gram per cubic meter up to 5 grams per cubic meter , but add it all up and there’s a surprising amount of mass in even something as fluffy as a common cumulus cloud.

Cumulus clouds sit roughly 2 kilometers above the ground and, on average, cover a cubic kilometer of space, with a total mass of over 1.1 million pounds. Putting this in perspective, that’s the same as 550 Blue Whales, each weighing up to 160 tons.


Picture credit: Cloud Maven – Cumulus clouds over the desert. Hundreds of blue whales would be far more spectacular

What about a thunderhead?

What about a massive cumulonimbus rolling in over the horizon? You know, the clouds that look like something from the opening of the movie Independence Day?


Picture credit: Cumulonimbus by Pat Groove

Cumulonimbus clouds contain roughly the same mass as 10,000 747 jet airplanes or 200,000 elephants floating through the sky! What a sight that would be!

In addition to the kinetic energy of such a massive storm, there’s also a phenomenal amount of energy released as water condenses, forming the mushrooming updraft you see above. Chaotic collisions between particles within the cloud and the circular motion of air currents causes different electrically charged regions to form within the various cloud banks, leading to lightning and thunder. When all this is taken into account, it’s no surprise to learn that the average thunderstorm releases the equivalent of a 20 kiloton nuclear bomb! Most of the time, this energy is released across a broad front and does little or no damage, but when it concentrates in the form of a tornado or in the eye wall of a hurricane, the devastation is not dissimilar to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As tempting as it is to ignore weather warnings and chase storms, don’t. Remember, you wouldn’t gamble with nuclear weapons or several hundred thousand elephants raining down upon you, why take a chance on a tornado? Stay safe this tornado season.

And when it comes to a hurricane, we’re talking the equivalent mass of forty million elephants. It’s a silly measurement, that’s for sure, and we’re not likely to switch to measuring hurricanes in elephants any time soon, but it does help put the size of these storms in perspective.

Clouds…. who’d have thunk they could be so troublesome.

Picture Credit: Pink Floyd album Animals

Picture Credit: Pink Floyd album Animals

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