An Interview with Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Pictured: Contrails over Christchurch

I was fortunate enough to interview Gavin Pretor Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation. The Cloud Appreciation Society is such an incredible organisation – all for the love of clouds! Check out the interview below:

Since the Cloud Appreciation Society came to be, has your approach to cloud spotting changed at all, or have you always had a clear idea of how the society would pan out?

I started the Society in 2005 with no plan for how it would develop.  At first, it was just an idea and it never occurred to me that the idea would resonate so much with people around the world.  Over the 12 years of its existence, my approach to cloudspotting probably has changed.  I started out as an amateur who simply liked and enjoyed the sky.  As I wrote books about clouds, I found out more and more about the science of them and as the Society grew in recognition I started to be referred to as a “cloud expert”.  I suppose I now am in some ways an expert, but I much prefer being an amateur because that is when your thinking is more free.

What I find really unique about CAS is that it recognises the relationship between clouds with artists, poets, musicians and meteorologists alike. Is this a connection you can relate to, or how else did this idea come to mind?

The sky and the clouds feel like the most evocative and poetic aspect of nature.  As the Romantic poets found, clouds make great metaphors for our thoughts and emotions.  They are also a challenge and inspiration for landscape painters, who see them as a way to bring feeling and emotion into a landscape painting.  And, of course, clouds are the most visible aspect of our atmosphere which means they reveal the movements and behaviour of the air,  they obey the laws of physics.  As a result, the sky is a perfect subject matter for combining science and art perspectives on the world.  They are scientific phenomena, and as the ever-present backdrop to human existence the sky has played a cameo role in much of our culture.  From a personal point of view, I’ve always been interested in combining science and arts perspectives on the world.  I studied double maths, physics and chemistry and high school, philosophy at university, and graphic design as a post-graduate.  So mixing science and art feels natural to me.

What do you think has been the most significant development or achievement for the CAS (of many!) since it has evolved from its beginnings?

Some might say that the official recognition by the World Meteorological Organisation of the Asperitas cloud might be the most significant.  This is a new classification of cloud – one that looks like turbulent, chaotic ocean waves – which we first proposed as a new cloud type back in 2008.  This is a great outcome from the Society but I don’t think it is the main achievement.  That, in my opinion, is more the way that the Society has been able to appeal to such a broad spectrum of people around the world.  I want to develop the community further and enable better communication between members, so I see this as an ongoing project.

Image result for asperitas cloud

The Cloud Appreciation Society has members worldwide from 115 different countries, was there anything you did in particular to stimulate growth of the society in the global scene?

No, not at all.  The international growth of the Society is, in my opinion, due to a couple of things.  Firstly, the sky is a universal aspect of nature.  We all inhabit the same atmosphere and the language of the sky is something that we all relate to no matter where we are.  There is a unifying quality of sky awareness, and this has helped the Society spread.  Secondly, most people feel a strong emotional connection to the sky.  This comes from their memories of finding shapes in the clouds when they were young.  So the combination of a universal subject about which people feel a strong personal connection is one reason why the Society has spread easily.  One other factor is the name.  It is clear from the name of the Society what it is and also that there is something light hearted about it.  Teaching people something new in a way that is light and amusing is, in my opinion, always the best approach.

Different conditions breed different clouds, do you have any sort of cloud envy for other areas around the world?

In Britain we have a lot of low cloud because of the many weather systems coming in from the North Atlantic.  There are plenty of other clouds at mid and high levels, but these are not always visible if the low clouds are in the way.  With these multi-level skies there is always a lot to see.  I would say, however, that continental climates sometimes produce skies that are dramatic because one cloud type dominates which means the clouds feel different from the many mixed skies we experience here.  The photographs we use in the gallery or my books to illustrate a particular cloud type favour skies where that one cloud is dominant.  For this reason, I sometimes think that less of a mixture of clouds is more dramatic.  I don’t, however, feel cloud envy.  Cloudspotting is not about going somewhere in search of particular formations.  To me, it’s about adopting a frame of mind in which you are open to what happens in the sky, and prepare to stop what you are doing to appreciate an interesting formation when it happens.  I know that New Zealand is a fantastic location for Altocumulus lenticularis clouds and I would love, one day, to organise a Cloud Appreciation Society trip there.  Do let me know if you think of anywhere in particular that might make a good destination for people interested in the sky.

Image result for gavin pretor pinney


Visit the Cloud Appreciation Society’s website:

Or watch this TED Talk:

Many thanks to Gavin  Pretor-Pinney for taking part in the interview!


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