Photo from 2006 in Cedar Rapids leads to worldwide recognition of new cloud

A photo taken nearly 11 years ago in Cedar Rapids has led to the worldwide recognition of a previously unclassified type of cloud.

“I feel very privileged to be a part of all that,” said Waterloo photographer Jane Wiggins, who on June 20, 2006, captured images of a cloud formation that since has been christened “asperitas” and recently included in the World Meteorological Organization’s International Cloud Atlas.

While she specializes in weddings and portraits, Wiggins has a photographer’s eye for dramatic images and instantly recognized the appeal of the skyscape outside the 11th-floor window of the U.S. Bank building in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Wiggins, who was not on a photo assignment but had her camera with her, said she opened a window to eliminate the possibility of unwanted reflections and “took four or five photos from different angles of the amazing clouds over the Quaker Oats plant.”

Wiggins described the weather that day as calm. “It was the morning after a rain, and there was no storm at all” associated with the wave clouds, she said.

Though Wiggins had no immediate plans for the photo, she shared it with associates, one of whom suggested she submit it to the Cloud Appreciation Society based in Somerton, England.

Recognizing the distinctive character of the cloud, the society’s founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, proposed a formal Latin name, Undulatus asperatus (later changed to asperitas), and led an ultimately successful 10-year campaign for its recognition by the World Meteorological Organization.

“Ever since we first noticed distinctive turbulent waves of cloud back in 2006 in images sent from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, US, we have argued that this formation did not easily fit within the existing naming system. So we are very pleased that now, almost 10 years later, Asperitas is finally being accepted as an official classification by the World Meteorological Organization,” the Cloud Appreciation Society wrote in a recent post on its website.

Given that most landscapes include as much sky as land, “clouds add interest and drama to a photo, especially of sunrises and sunsets,” said Wiggins, who has long been fascinated by clouds and storms and often sits outside watching the approach of a storm “until I absolutely have to go inside.”

Of all her photos, Wiggins said her asperitas photo has been by far the most widely published and viewed, with publishers including the Cloud Appreciation Society, the National Geographic Society, the British Broadcasting Corporation, CBS News and USA Today.

KCRG-TV9 meteorologist Kaj O’Mara recalls seeing the cloud that Wiggins photographed in 2006.

“Oh yeah, that was a fun one, a pretty rare sight,” he said.

Asperitas clouds consist of moisture sandwiched between layers of stable air and present no strong indication of an impending storm, O’Mara said.

“They look more ominous than they really are,” he said.

While clouds play an important role in predicting the weather, O’Mara said the station’s weather crew does not keep a cloud atlas as a reference.

Meteorologists, he said, rely on clouds in helping to predict daily high and low temperatures and the arrival of storms. In doing so, the three basic cloud types — cumulus, stratus and cirrus — and their combinations are typically sufficient, he said.

The proliferation and portability of digital cameras during the past 20 years has resulted in a profusion of cloud and storm photos.

When rare and dramatic clouds appear, “social media blows up,” O’Mara said.

Such photos can help verify storm reports and document damage, but blog rumors, especially of impending blizzards, can spread misinformation and fuel needless anxiety, he said.