The Hot Zone

Clouds may be key to determining how high temperatures will rise

Posted by Alison Hawkes on December 3, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

The kind of clouds in the sky is an important factor in determining surface temperatures, scientists have long known. Low-lying clouds tend to reflect sunlight back into space keeping the climate cooler, while high clouds trap heat.

The best estimates on global surface temperatures under climate change varies from an astounding 3.6 to 8.1 degrees F. There’s a difference there big enough to change holiday plans, or alter an ecosystem. It’s the kind of clouds in the sky that matter in all this.

Research published in the November 2010 Journal of Climate by Axel Lauer at the University of Hawaii, Manoa explored the cloud types most likely to cover the sky in a warming world. Using global climate models that analyzed the tropical eastern Pacific region, simulations were run on late 21st century temperature conditions.

Stratocumulous clouds may thin away under higher temperatures. Photo: Ralph Kresge at NOAA

The result? A “distinct reduction in low-level cloud amount,” particularly stratocumulus clouds, that tend to thin out under higher temperatures. The disappearance of these low-level clouds could provide a feedback to even higher temperatures.

Lauer’s concludes that the study supports the notion that global temperatures will be on the high end of current estimates.

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