Cloud feedback

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Cloud feedback is the coupling between cloudiness and surface air temperature in which a change in radiative forcing perturbs the surface air temperature, leading to a change in clouds, which could then amplify or diminish the initial temperature perturbation.

Global warming is expected to change the distribution and type of clouds. Seen from below, clouds emit infrared radiation back to the surface, and so exert a warming effect; seen from above, clouds reflect sunlight and emit infrared radiation to space, and so exert a cooling effect.[1] Cloud representations vary among global climate models, and small changes in cloud cover have a large impact on the climate.[2][3] Differences in planetary boundary layer cloud modeling schemes can lead to large differences in derived values of climate sensitivity. A model that decreases boundary layer clouds in response to global warming has a climate sensitivity twice that of a model that does not include this feedback.[4] However, satellite data show that cloud optical thickness actually increases with increasing temperature.[5] Whether the net effect is warming or cooling depends on details such as the type and altitude of the cloud; details that are difficult to represent in climate models.

In addition to how clouds themselves will respond to increased temperatures, there exist other feedbacks that will affect clouds properties and formation. The amount and vertical distribution of water vapor is closely linked to the formation of clouds. Ice crystals have been shown to largely influence the amount of water vapor.[6] Water vapor in the subtropical upper troposphere has been linked to the convection of water vapor and ice. Changes in subtropical humidity could provide a negative feedback that decreases the amount of water vapor which would act to mediate global climate transitions.[7]

Changes in cloud cover are closely coupled with other feedback, including the water vapor feedback and ice-albedo feedback. Changing climate is expected to alter the relationship between cloud ice and supercooled cloud water, which in turn would influence the microphysics of the cloud which would result in changes in the radiative properties of the cloud. Climate models suggest that a warming will increase fractional cloudiness. More clouds cools the climate, resulting in a negative feedback.[8] Increasing temperatures in the polar regions is expected in increase the amount of low-level clouds, whose stratification prevents the convection of moisture to upper levels. This feedback would partially cancel the increased surface warming due to the cloudiness.[9]

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