From: University of Colorado via EurekAlert!
Published December 10, 2015 07:29 AM

Cloudy with a chance of warming

Clouds can increase warming in the changing Arctic region more than scientists expected, by delivering an unexpected double-whammy to the climate system, according to a new study by researchers at NOAA, the University of Colorado Boulder and colleagues.

"As the Arctic atmosphere warms and moistens, it becomes a better insulator. While we expected this to reduce the influence from clouds, which provide additional insulation, we find that clouds forming in the Arctic in these conditions appear to further warm the surface, especially in the fall and winter," said Christopher Cox, lead author of the new paper published today in Nature Communications. Cox is a research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), who works at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Clouds are a complicated character in the climate change story: They can cool the planet's surface by reflecting sunlight, and they can insulate it and keep it warm.

"To understand why and where Earth is warming, you have to understand the overall effect of clouds," Cox said.

Head north to the Arctic, and clouds' impact on climate is particularly difficult to understand, he said. The amount and manner in which clouds warm the surface is determined by an intricate dance between moisture (relative humidity), temperatures and the properties of the clouds--and that dance "is different in the Arctic, where the air is colder and drier than at lower latitudes," Cox said.

To nail down the overarching influence of Arctic clouds on temperatures, he and colleagues from CIRES, NOAA, Washington State University, Idaho and Chile analyzed measurements from three science research stations in the far north: Barrow, Alaska; Eureka, Canada; and Summit, Greenland.

They assessed things like temperature, relative humidity, and a measure of the cloud insulating properties ("the downwelling infrared cloud radiative effect"), and they looked at how those factors interacted with one another (in different parts of the infrared spectrum).

Previous work suggested that as the atmosphere itself warms and becomes more moist it becomes a better insulator, so the clouds themselves have a diminishing contribution to warming. This is likely true on a global scale: It's as if a person is already warm under a blanket and adding another blanket has little additional effect.

Continue reading at EurekAlert!

Clouds and snow image via Shutterstock.

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy

2017©. Copyright Environmental News Network