LUNDY ISLAND, England — A path of trampled grass leads up the hill to St. Helen’s, the only church on Lundy Island. Near its doors, a stray lamb nibbles on tufts of tall weeds. From a Gothic tower topped with the English flag, the coastline of Devon is faintly visible to the east, while the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean stretches west, the seas uninterrupted all the way to North America.
Inside, a handful of visitors in windproof jackets lean forward on wooden benches to catch the Rev. Jane Skinner’s words.
“Majestic or wispy, solid yet ephemeral. Who could conceive of clouds?” Skinner asks, sturdy Teva sandals peeking out from underneath her white robes. “God has the whole spectrum in view, from the heavenly sphere to the atom, the clouds delivering dramatic forces of nature, shielding and obscuring light.”
As she speaks, workmen bustle about the nave setting up equipment for the days to come. It’s no easy task, hosting a group on an off-grid island powered by a generator that switches off at midnight, and where the internet signal goes down in overloaded circuits whenever someone uses electricity to make tea.
“Clouds remind us to be joyful,” Skinner starts again. “To pause and glory in nature, which is beautiful and good.”
She could be talking about Lundy itself, a place seemingly frozen in a more innocent time: no paved roads and hardly any cars, an island lifted straight out of a children’s book about a summer adventure in a world without care.
The entire congregation at this Sunday service, from a Singaporean couple to Skinner herself, are members of a group called the Cloud Appreciation Society. They’ve traveled here with a simple plan: to look up at the skies above. Far from the noise of political division and climate catastrophe, the island offers an escape — and also a reminder of all there is to lose in an era of environmental change caused by humans, the Age of the Anthropocene.
After taking communion under the dull light of a stained-glass window, visitors leave the church in twos, walking along a rock wall that crisscrosses the island. Follow it north and the village turns to open fields and skies. A shell of an old quarry hospital stands on a cliff. All that remains are the crumbling stone walls, its roof long gone. Thin feathers of clouds float high above, providing little shelter from the sun.
When Gavin Pretor-Pinney decided on a whim to inaugurate the Cloud Appreciation Society at a literary festival, he never expected it to draw much attention.
Fifteen years later, more than 47,000 members have signed up for a group that could have been dismissed as another example of quintessentially British eccentricity and the society offers merch, cloud-spotting apps and specially themed excursions, like the trip to Lundy in May.
Pretor-Pinney still brims with excitement whenever he talks of clouds. He wanted to bring his members somewhere equally unique, which led him to Lundy, a spit of an island 11 miles off the coast of southwestern England: “Come escape with us to a treasure island,” the society’s invitation reads.
In the past, pirates hid out on Lundy, taking advantage of intense fog and low clouds that helped cause 200 shipwrecks. Early during the long weekend here, Pretor-Pinney reminds members, “If you spend a few moments each day with your heads in the clouds, it keeps your feet on the ground.”
Pretor-Pinney credits his group’s popularity with our childhood fascination with the sky and the nostalgia we feel when we’re reintroduced to clouds.
“The society’s success has been to do with reawakening something that is already dormant in everyone,” he says. “It’s about not taking for granted something that is around you all the time.”
Pretor-Pinney admits that some members feel the society is an antidote to the exhaustion they feel from constant connectivity in their daily lives.
“There’s more division, more polarization, or at least it feels like that at the moment,” he says. “This part of nature, clouds, which is similar all around the world, it brings people together.”
Still, he wonders what, if any, role the society should have in the realm of climate change. Later in the weekend he asks those gathered if the society should take a more forceful stand on environmental activism.
One member from Denmark says he plans to devote his life after retirement to climate activism, while several American members say the society is a respite from the news cycle and want the organization to stay out of advocacy. For them, clouds provide an escape.
One of the lines from the society’s manifesto is imbued with the simple pleasures the group advocates: “Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day by day.” But halfway around the planet at the California Institute of Technology, a group of scientists has modeled one such scenario for the future.
Clouds on the horizon
Although scientists have known since the 1970s that clouds can both ameliorate and contribute to the Earth’s warming, the role they will play in the planet’s heating remains one of the singular uncertainties in the field.
Out of the many clouds that help regulate the Earth’s climate, the Stratocumulus, those low-lying, grayish-white clouds that are often mistaken for rain clouds, are especially significant. They cover around 20 percent of the tropical ocean, cooling the planet by reflecting sunlight back toward the atmosphere.
Despite their importance, Stratocumulus clouds have been historically underrepresented in climate models, meaning their negative feedback on surface temperatures — or their cooling effect — hasn’t been accurately reflected in climate projections.
Tapio Schneider, a climate scientist at Caltech, decided to focus on Stratocumulus clouds in a small patch of subtropical oceans, running highly detailed calculations on supercomputers for several weeks.
In February, Schneider’s team published a paper saying Stratocumulus clouds in their model broke up into smaller Cumulus clouds and actually disappeared when carbon dioxide levels reached 1,200 parts per million (ppm), or levels that are three times higher than today.
“The moment you saw the calculations it was shocking, because until then, it was kind of a thought experiment,” Schneider says. “And then it started to feel a bit more real — that it actually could happen, which is scary.” Schneider is quick to point out, however, that there are still many uncertainties in the results and that it’s an extreme scenario that shouldn’t prompt immediate panic.
Other climate researchers have criticized the paper, saying the findings are based on a narrow patch of clouds and cannot be extrapolated to the entire globe.
“It’s not enough to run a model of a little box and get some of the small scales correct; all of the intermediate factors have a strong influence on how the cloudiness evolves, and that’s what’s missing from that paper,” says Bjorn Stevens, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg.
To Schneider’s own surprise, his paper generated a slew of grim headlines, adding to the near-daily feed of news articles about climate calamity. “Climate change kills off clouds,” read one headline. Another got even more apocalyptic: “Climate change is eliminating clouds. Without them, Earth burns.”
The California researchers posit that the dispersal of the Stratocumulus would add some 8 degrees Celsius to the Earth’s temperature, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions alone. The last time the Earth experienced such conditions was some 50 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic.
A United Nations climate panel has estimated that human activities have contributed between 0.8 degrees and 1.2 degrees Celsius to the planet’s temperature since the pre-industrial era. That increase has already contributed to significant polar ice melt and led to a rise in wildfires, droughts and epic heat waves.
In May, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 415 ppm at the Mauna Loa observatory 11,000 feet above sea level in Hawaii, the highest measurement taken at the site since daily observations began in the late 1950s. Carbon dioxide levels are now higher than they have been for millions of years. If emissions continue at their current pace, the scenario modeled by Schneider’s team in which the Stratocumulus go extinct could be met in a century.
An open sky
Walking back through the village after the Sunday church service, Carolyn Byrne is feeling settled for the first time in months.
Byrne had been a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society for a few years before the invitation to Lundy landed in her inbox. The solitude of an island lost in time appealed to her, and she booked the ticket without thinking.
As soon as she arrived on the island, the tiny bars of signal on her iPhone disappeared. Byrne, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, felt as if she hadn’t been out of cell range since 1999, when every junior associate at her old New York corporate law firm was issued a Blackberry.
“There’s a point when everyone’s just checking off all the boxes, like ‘Oh, I have to go to Target to pick up more paper towels’ or, you know, ‘Little Johnny has to go to swim class and Suzy has to go to gymnastics,’” she says. “And you wonder, when was the last time I was able to just do this, look at clouds and play music? And that was in the fourth grade.”
The 45-year-old, who lives with her husband and their three young children and also has three adult stepchildren, had forgotten what it felt like to sit still and look up at the world above her. In her Manhattan neighborhood, she can see only slivers of the sky sandwiched between high-rises. On Lundy, the sky, and with it the world, has doubled in view.
“I’m so far away from home, but it feels less like discovering and more like remembering, if that makes sense,” she says as she navigates a field of sheep droppings on an uphill walk to her cottage.
“I remember growing up in Long Island lying on my back in the front yard, looking up at the sky and picking out shapes.”
There’s something deeply reminiscent about the landscape here, like a scene from a dream slipping away at dawn. But Lundy looks nothing like Manhattan or Long Island or anywhere else really that Byrne has been before.
She knows her spur-of-the-moment trip and her cloud-watching hobby might seem absurd to some of her colleagues. But in a life of constant activity and 24-hour connectivity, of TV shows looping story after story of calamity and division, disconnecting felt to her like the ultimate act of rebellion.
Byrne says she regularly sits down with her young children to discuss worrying headlines in the news, many of them about global warming. She admires the schoolchildren marching out of school demanding action on climate change and worries about the planet she is leaving behind for her own kids.
Carrying her copy of Pretor-Pinney’s “The Cloudspotter’s Guide” earmarked with color-coded Post-it notes, Byrne stops to point out the translucent, wispy clouds called Cirrus, which in Latin translates to a lock of hair.
Byrne is staying in a cottage that was originally built for the keeper of a stone lighthouse in 1820. On evenings and in between cloud workshops, she climbs the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse to practice her flute. As she plays, she can see the old cemetery below, where early Christian burial stones sit side by side with the gravestones of a later clan that used to own the island. A stone cross covered in a web of lichen bears the inscriptions of one of them, the Rev. Hudson Heaven.
Clouds and a warming world
Like plants and animals, clouds— vast assemblies of miniscule water droplets and ice crystals that cling to dust and are suspended in the air — are given Latin names. High clouds streaking upward of 45,000 feet above the ground are called Cirrus, Cirrocumulus or Cirrostratus, while lower-lying Cumulus or Cumulonimbus clouds are usually spotted anywhere from the Earth’s surface to 6,500 feet above land.
The Cloud Appreciation Society’s “Cloud-a-Day” app calls the Cumulonimbus “the King or Queen of Clouds” and praises its impressive size and ability to form storms. When people claim that clouds are depressing, the app says, they’re usually talking about the Nimbostratus, which can arrive without warning to bring rain: “This is the cloud that gives all the others a bad name.”
From a climate perspective, these clouds all fulfill different roles. In simple terms, high-flying clouds have more of a greenhouse effect because they trap heat, while lower banks of clouds reflect light away from the Earth.
In normal climates, the net cooling effect of clouds is roughly five times greater than the heating of the planet that would occur from the doubling of carbon dioxide. Although many hoped that clouds would in fact limit or moderate warming, evidence says otherwise.
In its fifth assessment report published in 2013, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the net radiative feedback from all cloud types was “likely positive,” which isn’t good news at all: It means they’re contributing to and exacerbating the planet’s warming.
“The biggest effect of clouds is to block sunlight, but as the world warms, we expect to have clouds change in a way that they effectively block less sunlight so the planet warms even more, but how strong this effect is remains uncertain,” says Stevens, who was one of the leading authors of the IPCC chapter on clouds.
Peter Stott leads the Climate Monitoring and Attribution team at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research for the weather forecasting Met Office in Exeter, not far from Lundy. “Although there is uncertainty in cloud feedbacks, that uncertainty is pushing us toward more warming, not less,” he says. “We’re confident that it’s more warming; we just don’t know how much.”
A changing landscape
Landscape painter Lionel Playford sits on a hill on the southern tip of Lundy overlooking the Bristol Channel. Two skylarks sing and flit above his hat. Playford, a Cloud Appreciation Society member who is normally based in the hills of the North Pennines in northern England, has traveled to Lundy to give a lecture on the artistic depiction of clouds, from the frescoes of Piero della Francesca to the English countryside painted by John Constable.
His slide presentation is a rolling cast of Cirrus, Cumulonimbus and Altocumulus, all offering backdrops to saints and farmers over the centuries. In one slide, Playford shows a contemporary work by the painter George Shaw of a rundown suburban housing estate in England. A gray sky takes up half the canvas, and its dull reflection is pooled in a puddle on the asphalt.
“He doesn’t paint Cumulonimbus or Cirrus or any of the others,” he says, adding that the overcast sky isn’t entirely colorless. “I feel he’s trying to tell us something about Coventry where he grew up.”
After his talk in the church, members scatter and Playford rushes to finish a painting before lunch.
“I’m sort of happy with these,” Playford says as he mixes watercolor paints on a white enamel palette. He spreads his brush over the cotton rag paper in front of him and squints in the sun. “You have to really capture the character of the clouds.”
Six years ago, a researcher who had heard about Playford’s interest in clouds visited his studio to ask if his portrayal of the sky had changed over the years because of air pollution and climate change.
Playford didn’t have an answer, but it spurred an interest in the environment and how the planet’s warming is affecting landscapes, which have been the focus of his life’s work. Since 2013, Playford has worked with climate scientists, most recently joining young oceanographers on board the German icebreaker Polarstern as an artist in residence to collaborate on giant murals of the ocean.
“All this knowledge about climate change, all these fears over our futures, our children’s futures and the inexorability of it, they have to be expressed somehow, and for people like me it’s through art.”
From myths to models
Many cultures around the world have their own mythology and narratives around the undulating clouds above. In one folklore of the indigenous Ainu of Japan, a deity is said to have created the Earth by filling the ocean with clouds. In Hamlet, the prince uses clouds to test Polonius, a counselor to the king, asking the older man what animal he sees in the cloud. When Polonius agrees with Hamlet each time the young prince changes the animal he sees (a camel, a weasel, a whale), Hamlet realizes that even his most trusted courtiers aren’t to be trusted.
Clouds, ever fickle and unpredictable, play a crucial role in any future climate scenarios; scientists have previously reported that the tops of higher-altitude clouds were ascending higher into the atmosphere, potentially strengthening the greenhouse effect of clouds by trapping more heat, and others found evidence that clouds were moving toward the poles.
Researchers say it’s vital that global climate models are more sensitive to their impact on surface temperatures and other processes.
Global climate models are a computational mesh that use grids of the Earth that are tens to hundreds of kilometers wide. Clouds and the complicated processes they are made under are smaller in size and present a “blind spot” in climate modeling, says Schneider, the Caltech climate scientist.
“They are literally falling through the cracks in these models,” he says.
Schneider is now building the Climate Modeling Alliance, which will bring technologists and multidisciplinary experts together to create new models with the power to better reflect small-scale processes like clouds.
But Stevens from the Max Planck Institute says something even more drastic is necessary.
“So imagine everyone’s trying to unlock the door and what people are doing is they’re kind of using the same type of key and they’re just fiddling a little bit with the shape at the end,” he says. “We’re saying you need to use a different type of key.” He supports the climate-change equivalent of the Manhattan Project, a multinational effort championed by leading scientists in the European Union that pools computational resources to build higher-quality models.
The cloud couple
Throughout the long weekend here, Margaret and Richard Harwood are the most recognizable couple on Lundy. They wear matching sapphire fleece jackets covered in colorful patches. There’s a yellow circle patch for the Cloud Appreciation Society with a black outline of a Cumulus and another with a picture of an aurora-lit sky from their trip with the society two years ago to the remote Blachford Lake in northern Canada.
Margaret, a retired teacher, and Richard, who spent his entire career as an officer in the Royal Air Force, are self-proclaimed “superfans” of Pretor-Pinney. Margaret has always been interested in clouds, and collected newspaper and magazine clippings on them for years.
Twelve years ago, she heard Pretor-Pinney talking about his offbeat society on BBC Radio 4. Richard bought her a membership to the Cloud Appreciation Society for her birthday and framed the certificate to hang up on their wall.
Since then, the Harwoods have tried to attend every talk, gathering and retreat they can afford. They’re both traveling to Finland’s Lapland area in the fall to see the Northern Lights, and Margaret is on the waiting list for a cloud-watching trip to Bolivia next spring.
“I’m going to wait at the airport for when everybody goes and then I’m going to kill the last person and take their place,” Margaret says. When she winks, her cloud earrings jingle under her blonde bob. “I’m going to have my visa, my shots, have my case at check-in and just kick my way onto the flight.”
On their last night on Lundy, society members gather for a pub quiz in the island’s high-ceilinged tavern. Richard and Margaret look at their quiz sheet and try to remember what one of the lecturers said about auroras. When they come to a question about Lundy’s postal service and its sought-after stamps, Margaret wonders why anyone would want to collect them.
“How nerdy,” she says.
The couple, both 69, say they’re fortunate to be able to appreciate nature on a trip like this. But they worry that their children and grandchildren won’t have the same chance.
“Our generation spoiled everything, not with awareness, maybe, but we have also allowed the generation following us to face this,” Margaret says.
“We spend a fortune on preserving all these old stately homes and gardens, and yet the world is going to hell in a handbasket and there’s not going to be anybody to appreciate it.”
A sense of loss
As society members pack up to leave Lundy, visitors filter through the general store and the tavern to settle their tabs.
The pub is named after William de Marisco, whose family owned the island for nearly a century and used it as a base for piracy. The island was later sold to a Barnstaple businessman who sank his own ship as part of an elaborate insurance fraud scheme. In the 1920s, businessman Martin Coles Harman bought Lundy and fashioned himself a king of the island. He was taken to court after he minted puffin coins, for the birds that nest in Jenny’s Cove, a jagged cliff face on the western coast of Lundy. The National Trust has owned the island since the 1960s.
Walt Lyons, an atmospheric scientist and former broadcast meteorologist who belongs to the society, finishes up lunch in one nook of the pub.
Lyons, who served for a time as the president of the American Meteorological Society, said his colleagues have been warning for decades about the unequivocal realities of climate change, to little effect.
After the weekend on Lundy, the Cloud Appreciation Society decided not to get involved in the climate change debate. Asked what he made of his fellow members’ reluctance to include climate advocacy in the Cloud Appreciation Society’s work, he pauses for a moment.
He then recounts how when he visited Costa Rica last October, local guides told him that the clouds that used to mist over the tops of the tallest trees in the famous Monteverde forest were rising higher into the sky.
There seems to be more evidence every day of what feels like a slow-motion train wreck. It’s getting harder to look away.
“Every time you turn around, there’s impact from warming. It’s exactly as climate modelers have predicted,” Lyons says.
Every day there seems to be more evidence of what feels like a slow-motion train wreck. It’s getting harder to look away.
“Just appreciating clouds is a big job, because people are reconnecting with nature,” he says finally. “If more people could begin to understand what they’re about to lose…” He walks away and settles his bill with the cashier.
The Rev. Skinner is preparing to leave Lundy. A group of men with heavy camera equipment has already taken the Land Rover down to the jetty to meet the ferry, and volunteers are busy stacking folding chairs into a neat pile in the corner of the church. Normally based in the village of Woolfardisworthy West in Devon, Skinner takes turns visiting Lundy with other rectors in the area. It will be another few months before she returns to St. Helen’s for a Sunday service.
Members of the cloud society have spent three uninterrupted days having the island all to themselves, but by the morning of their last day, a ferry full of newcomers has arrived, breaking the tranquility. A soft wind ruffles the tops of the long grass and children play tag in a field next to the pub.
Perhaps because of Lundy’s isolation, Skinner always finds that visitors here are eager to share their secret worries.
“We are living through a time when it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless,” Skinner says. “It’s hard to see something so beautiful and transient disappear,” she adds later, never explaining if she means clouds or something more.
In that moment, a visitor in a blue windbreaker huffs up the hill, takes off his wide-brimmed hat and stops in front of the church.
“We’re just finishing up here, but you can go inside if you want to take a look,” Skinner says.
“What are they all here for?” he asks, peeking over her head into the church. When Skinner tells him about the gathering of the Cloud Appreciation Society, he immediately looks up, as if noticing the sky for the first time.
“What constitutes an appreciation, would you say?”
Skinner replies that the members have their own understanding of what the society means to them.
“There are people with extraordinary scientific knowledge and then others who send in a photo from Australia saying, ‘Look, that’s a dog chasing a rabbit,’” she says.
The man shades his face with his hand but keeps his head turned up to the sky. He looks over the channel to Devon, then toward the green hills of Wales, and pauses some more to look up at the clouds above.