Climate research brings a tiny bit of good news for a change.
Earth’s clouds got a little lower — about one percent on average — during the first decade of this century, finds a new NASA-funded university study based on NASA satellite data. The results have potential implications for future global climate.
Scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand analyzed the first 10 years of global cloud-top height measurements (from March 2000 to February 2010) from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft. The study, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, revealed an overall trend of decreasing cloud height. Global average cloud height declined by around one percent over the decade, or by around 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 meters). Most of the reduction was due to fewer clouds occurring at very high altitudes.
Lead researcher Roger Davies said that while the record is too short to be definitive, it provides a hint that something quite important might be going on. Longer-term monitoring will be required to determine the significance of the observation for global temperatures.
A consistent reduction in cloud height would allow Earth to cool to space more efficiently, reducing the surface temperature of the planet and potentially slowing the effects of global warming. This may represent a “negative feedback” mechanism — a change caused by global warming that works to counteract it. “We don’t know exactly what causes the cloud heights to lower,” says Davies. “But it must be due to a change in the circulation patterns that give rise to cloud formation at high altitude.”
From what we know of the present rate of warming, it’s not enough to offset it entirely; if it could, it would and we wouldn’t be talking about climate change. And history also backs that up — a previous period of warming was so intense that dinosaurs were able to easily survive in Antarctica. You have to assume the same thing happened then. But more time is more time. So good news there.
It also strikes me that lowering clouds would mean more cloud cover, assuming evaporation and condensation is the same. Clouds would share a smaller sphere, in a sense, and would therefore shade more area. If you give it some thought, you can see upsides and downsides to this, since it means less direct sunlight.
But, as the researchers caution, this isn’t definitive. But it’s reason for hope and optimism, I think.