Those big puffs of atmospheric water hanging around in the sky may not seem to do too much besides bring rain and shade. But to chemists, they’re fascinating. There’s an extraordinary amount of science behind how they work, how they come together to bring amazing apocalyptic detail to the horizon, and why they paint the sky in a rainbow of colors.

The latest cloud science: how the edges of clouds form and the details they hold. Raymond Shaw, an atmospheric scientist at Michigan Technological University, is uncovering the complexities behind how clouds interact with surrounding air. And what he’s learning is incredible. The results of his latest study are reported in this week’s issue of Science.

All this data is thanks to a new instrument called the Holographic Detector for Clouds, or HOLODEC (no, not that one). It creates a miniature, cigar-sized 3D section of the cloud, and it’s able to reveal a ton of different details.

“We can not only see how many droplets there are, and how big they are, we can also see how they are distributed in space,” Shaw told NPR.

Shaw and his colleagues found that at the cloud edges, dry air mixes in with the water, causing some droplets to evaporate completely while others form wispier filaments — resulting in those ultra thin strands that hang off the edge of clouds you see in the air. It’s in contrast to the initial thought that all or most of the droplets would evaporate in the dry air and cause the cloud to shrink.

Besides just wanting to know for science’s sake, what can we do with this knowledge? Shaw says these little details are just one step in a domino effect that leads to bigger weather patterns and atmospheric processes. Meteorologists and climatologists use these details to better understand what’s going on with larger phenomena, and predict what future trends or natural events might look like.

The study also provides good support for the usefulness of the HOLODEC. One can easily imagine that other scientists will start to employ it in more and more of their own research.

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