The Role of Clouds on Earth's Climate
Modeling for climate change is an extremely complex process because Earth's climate is so complex. It is an interrelated system that involves the atmosphere, biosphere, land, and oceans. A change in one can cause a chain reaction in all the others. By studying ancient climate change patterns, scientists are better able to predict what might happen in future events. However, one factor that remains far from understanding is the role of clouds — how they will react to and influence a changing climate.
On the one hand, clouds provide shade for the surface of the planet and effectively reflect incoming solar radiation back into space. Therefore, a rise in cloudiness will result in a cooler planet. On the other hand, clouds are made up of water vapor which is in itself, a powerful greenhouse gas. This would mean that more clouds would trap more heat than would be reflected.
The question is not just how much cloud cover there is, but where it is and what type of cloud. Would a warming world create more dark, storm clouds (stratus)? More great, big, puffy clouds (cumulus)? More high, wispy clouds (cirrus)? How each type would influence, and be influenced by, higher temperatures remains unknown. However, according to Dave Randall, cloud modeler at Colorado State University, "We do know a lot about clouds. We just don't know enough. We're not in the infant stages of understanding any more; we're in first or second grade, and on the way to adolescence."
The consensus among climate modelers is that global warming would lead to more evaporation of the oceans, which would create more water vapor in the air and more clouds. Yet, more water in the atmosphere may not necessarily lead to more clouds, because higher temperatures would require more water vapor to become saturated. This means that more water vapor would be needed to form clouds, leading to the same amount of cloudiness that there would be otherwise.
The study of clouds is ongoing, and there are many projects in the works to better understand them. MIT scientist, Richard Lindzen has proposed the Iris Hypothesis, which states that increasing humidity as the Earth warms will create a shift from cirrus to cumulus clouds which better reflect sunlight. This would create a counterweight to global warming. There is also a real-world experiment called the GEWEX (Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment) Cloud System Study conducted by multiple government agencies. The GEWEX team observes clouds from aircraft, ships, and remote sensing instruments, and then compares them to models that simulate clouds on those same scales.
So far, the preliminary assessment suggests clouds will accelerate warming, but the results are far from definitive. Yet most scientists say that the case is getting stronger. Some say that even if clouds have a cooling effect, they would not be sufficient to halt rising temperatures. One thing that all scientists will freely admit, like all climate science, is that they do not understand everything. But if they are anywhere close to being right, we are in for a warmer future.
For more information on the Iris Hypothesis: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Iris/
For more information on the GEWEX Cloud System Study: http://climserv.ipsl.polytechnique.fr/gewexca/