Mammatus, also known as mammatocumulus (meaning “mammary cloud” or “breast cloud”), is a meteorological term applied to a cellular pattern of pouches hanging underneath the base of a cloud. The name mammatus, derived from the Latin mamma (meaning “udder” or “breast”), refers to a resemblance between the characteristic shape of these clouds and the breast of a woman.
Mammatus are often associated with severe thunderstorms, sometimes very ominous in appearance, mammatus clouds are harmless and do not mean that a tornado is about to form; a commonly held misconception. In fact, mammatus are usually seen after the worst of a thunderstorm has passed.
As updrafts carry precipitation enriched air to the cloud top, upward momentum is lost and the air begins to spread out horizontally. Because of its high concentration of precipitation particles (ice crystals and water droplets), the saturated air is heavier than the surrounding air and sinks back towards the earth.
The temperature of the subsiding air increases as it descends. However, since heat energy is required to melt and evaporate the precipitation particles contained within the sinking air, the warming produced by the sinking motion is quickly used up in the evaporation of precipitation particles. If more energy is required for evaporation than is generated by the subsidence, the sinking air will be cooler than its surroundings and will continue to sink downward.
Mammatus may appear as smooth, ragged or lumpy lobes and may be opaque or semitransparent. Because mammatus occur as a grouping of lobes, the way they clump together can vary from an isolated cluster to a field of mamma that spread over hundreds of kilometers to being organized along a line, and may be composed of unequal or similarly-sized lobes. The individual mammatus lobe average diameters of 1–3 km and lengths on average of 0.5 km. A lobe can last an average of 10 minutes, but a whole cluster of mamma can range from 15 minutes to a few hours. They usually are composed of ice, but also can be a mixture of ice and liquid water or be composed of almost entirely liquid water