full text of the classic FAA guide
ICING AND CLOUD TYPES
Basically, all clouds at subfreezing temperatures have icing potential. However, drop size, drop distribution, and aerodynamic effects of the aircraft influence ice formation. Ice may not form even though the potential exists.
The condition most favorable for very hazardous icing is the presence of many large, supercooled water drops. Conversely, an equal or lesser number of smaller droplets favors a slower rate of icing.
Small water droplets occur most often in fog and low-level clouds. Drizzle or very light rain is evidence of the presence of small drops in such clouds; but in many cases there is no precipitation at all. The most common type of icing found in lower-level stratus clouds is rime.
On the other hand, thick extensive stratified clouds that produce continuous rain such as altostratus and nimbostratus usually have an abundance of liquid water because of the relatively larger drop size and number. Such cloud systems in winter may cover thousands of square miles and present very serious icing conditions for protracted flights. Particularly in thick stratified clouds, concentrations of liquid water normally are greater with warmer temperatures. Thus, heaviest icing usually will be found at or slightly above the freezing level where temperature is never more than a few degrees below freezing. In layer type clouds, continuous icing conditions are rarely found to be more than 5,000 feet above the freezing level, and usually are two or three thousand feet thick.
The upward currents in cumuliform clouds are favorable for the formation and support of many large water drops. The size of raindrops and rainfall intensity normally experienced from showers and thunderstorms confirm this. When an aircraft enters the heavy water concentrations found in cumuliform clouds, the large drops break and spread rapidly over the leading edge of the airfoil forming a film of water. If temperatures are freezing or colder, the water freezes quickly to form a solid sheet of clear ice. Pilots usually avoid cumuliform clouds when possible. Consequently, icing reports from such clouds are rare and do not indicate the frequency with which it can occur.
The updrafts in cumuliform clouds carry large amounts of liquid water far above the freezing level. On rare occasions icing has been encountered in thunderstorm clouds at altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet where the free air temperature was colder than minus 40° C.
While an upper limit of critical icing potential cannot be specified in cumuliform clouds, the cellular distribution of such clouds usually limits the horizontal extent of icing conditions. An exception, of course, may be found in a protracted flight through a broad zone of thunderstorms or heavy showers.
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