ASK ELLEN: Why do clouds sometimes move in opposite directions?

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Have you ever stopped and looked at the sky a moment and then realized the clouds aren’t all moving in the same direction? That’s what prompted John to ask this:

The answer is wind shear. 

The atmosphere is layered like a good cake.

The atmosphere is layered, like a good cake. Every time you climb into a different layer, you encounter new winds moving at a new speed or new direction. Any time the wind changes speed or direction with height, it’s called wind shear. 

Clouds travel with the wind. So they will move in different directions or different speeds depending on which “layer of the cake” they are in.

Clouds move with the wind current in their layer

Fun Fact: As a storm system departs, winds usually turn counter clockwise with height. This usually brings cooler air into the area. As a storm system arrives, winds usually turn clockwise with height. This usually brings warmer air into the area.

Hot air balloons use wind shear to steer where they are going. 

If you were ride in a hot air balloon from the surface to the top of the atmosphere, you would constantly be pushed around by wind traveling at different speeds or coming from different directions. Hot air balloonists will actually use this to their advantage. They will find a current of air traveling one direction before climbing or sinking in altitude to find a different air current to push them a different direction.

Here’s a crazy video of balloons getting caught in a sudden, unexpected wind shear after taking off.