July 18 – Cloud Control

Today’s factismal: Clouds both help keep the Earth warm and help cool it.

One of the fascinating things about science is how one thing can give two different effects depending on where it is. Ozone is a deadly gas at ground level but it protects us from ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphereA bull shark offshore Louisiana is no big deal but a bull shark offshore Chicago is pretty startling.  And low, puffy clouds cool the Earth while high, wispy ones warm it.  Even better, those differences can lead to honest controversies (unlike false ones, like the lie about the amount of CO2 put out by volcanoes) that then help advance the science.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

And that is what has been going on in climatology right now. One group of climatologists, led by Roy Spencer, think that as the world warms there will be more clouds formed at low latitudes and at low altitudes. That will have the effect of cooling the planet because the low, puffy clouds will reflect incoming solar energy back into space before it has a chance to heat things up. Another group thinks that as the world warms, clouds will migrate higher in the atmosphere where they will thin and allow more energy to reach the Earth while still blocking energy that tries to escape.

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Right now, it appears that the “clouds will warm us” group is more correct.  So it looks as if we will have more high, wispy clouds and, as an added bonus, expanding dry zones in the places where we grow most of our food. However, the results from the study are preliminary and could change with more data.

The colder air around the cloud has created a mass of ice crystals that refract the sunlight into a rainbow (My camera)

This cloud both warms and cools the planet
(My camera)

And that’s where you come in. You see, climatologists use satellites to measure clouds. But satellites don’t always see things the way that a person on the ground would.  And NASA would like your help and your school’s help to fix that. By becoming a NASA S’COOL Rover, you will look up when a satellite goes overhead and tell NASA what you see. Is it cloudy? Clear? Somewhere between? To learn more, drift on over to:
http://scool.larc.nasa.gov/rover.html

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