Why is it that clouds seem closer to the ground in France than in the US?
June 10, 2007 5:53 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine from France and I both noticed that, in France, the clouds in the sky seem to be closer to the ground than they are in the US. I have searched all over and can't figure out why this is the case, but we both observed it independently of one another so I assume something real must be going on - I just don't know what it is!

This is one of my strongest memories from a train ride I took from Switzerland to Paris about 7 years ago; it was a beautiful day with blue skies and big white fluffy clouds that felt much closer to the ground than fluffy clouds in the US. (The clouds were bigger, or something... they just looked much lower in the sky than I'm used to.)

When I mentioned this to my friend yesterday, who lives in Paris and has visited the US a few times, he said that he had actually noticed the same thing! All this time I had assumed I just went through France on a day with unusually low clouds, or that being on the train looking out on the countryside made for an unusual vantage point. But now, since he lives there, I think that this must be a real phenomenon.

Of course, despite my efforts spent searching the web, I am struggling to find the reason for it, and so I really hope all of you smart people can help me out.

At the time of my trip through France, I lived in Missouri. My friend has mostly visited Boston, within the past year or so. Is France's elevation significantly higher than the US? Are the clouds just lower in France, or bigger? And if so, why? Or is there another explanation I'm totally missing? My curiosity is killing me.

Thanks in advance :)
posted by inatizzy to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

The Wikipedia cloud article discusses cloud families, and "family C" might include types of cloud more common in the areas where you and your friend live/were visiting.

Also, perhaps your eyes were fooled by the fact that the horizon was closer or further away than you're used to? Or maybe you are rarely out on days like the day you experienced?
posted by mdonley at 6:04 PM on June 10, 2007

The terrain is probably playing tricks on you.

If you want to blow your French friend's mind, send him to "big sky country" Montana. I've lived in the southern US all my life, and the difference between Parisian clouds and my clouds was nothing compared to my clouds and Montana clouds.
posted by cmiller at 6:59 PM on June 10, 2007

Where in the US? It's a big place, you know...

My guess is that this is a variation on the size-of-the-moon paradox, where a full moon looks larger when it's on the horizon than it does straight up. It isn't changing size, but it seems larger when it's near something that gives you scale.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:13 PM on June 10, 2007

i have noticed the same phenomena within the US. I'm from the east coast and used to the clouds being at "regular" height, but once I moved to SF and would take BART out to the east bay, the clouds seemed much closer. I chalked it up to a coastal thing and the vantage point of the hills from the train window.
posted by lannanh at 8:13 PM on June 10, 2007

I don't know why it happens, but you're certainly not the only one to have noticed. From Jean Baudrillard's America:

Clouds spoil our European skies. Compared with the immense skies of America and their thick clouds, our little fleecy skies and little fleecy clouds resemble our fleecy thoughts, which are never thoughts of wide open spaces... In Paris, the sky never takes off. It doesn't soar above us. It remains caught up in the backdrop of sickly buildings, all living in each other's shade, as though it were a little piece of private property. It is not, as here in the great capital of New York, the vertiginous glass facade reflecting each building to the others. Europe has never been a continent. You can see that by its skies. As soon as you set foot in America, you feel the presence on an entire continent -- space there is the very form of thought.
posted by occhiblu at 9:42 PM on June 10, 2007

There's a road near here I call big sky road - it's long and wide and has low buildings, like I remember from the US.

I expect it's all perspective effects. Do you know the work of James Turrell? He is an artist working with light who sometimes makes sky pieces, where you look at a sky through a small aperture and can almost touch it.
posted by handee at 1:12 AM on June 11, 2007

See this previous question for some discussion on exactly what it is that makes a sky "big".
posted by rongorongo at 2:56 AM on June 11, 2007

Altitude? Especially in the Alps. I recall looking down on quite a few clouds in Switzerland.
posted by B-squared at 7:59 AM on June 11, 2007

Atmospheric conditions, perhaps. Cumulus (big white fluffy) clouds form at different altitude depending on temperatures aloft, etc. A quick google turned up this.

I'd guess that the proximity of the ocean has something to do with it, similar to what lannanh observed in SF.
posted by sgass at 8:24 AM on June 11, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips, everyone! I'm still feeling a bit perplexed but some of these possibilities help. I don't think it is elevation, unless France overall has a higher elevation than the US, because I was seeing the clouds as we traveled through the countryside in France, not while I was up in the Alps.

I think sgass's response is probably the most likely, given that my friend noticed it totally independently of me and in different years and different parts of France and the US. (Me comparing France & Missouri and him comparing the areas around Paris with Boston, MA.)

I would love to see the Montana sky someday...
posted by inatizzy at 7:27 PM on June 11, 2007

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