Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Reading (and watching, and listening to) the Clouds

Common cloud types at their approximate altitudes. (Stratus typically form lower than cumulus.) (not to scale) Photo: Wikipedia

Good news for would-be climate scientists: the field is still full of unknowns. Even as scientists develop microscopic cameras that can moniter conditions deep beneath glacial ice, elaborate computer models to predict weather and climate, machines to measure the reflection of sunlight off the Greenland Ice Sheet, it seems that with every new discovery, a conundrum emerges.

One such problem is clouds. The profound, billowy, and enigmatic white (and sometimes dark) shapes in the sky play a significant role in climate change. At Summit Station, CPS supports a year-round, NSF-funded cloud study led by Von Walden (U Idaho).

At any given time, about 70 percent of the earth is covered in clouds. Some of the clouds help cool the earth, others help warm it. Scientists—both professional and armchair—don’t necessarily know the impact clouds will have on climate change.

Cumulonimbus cloud with a rain shaft, an area in the cloud where it is raining. Photo courtesy UCAR

That may soon change, thanks to a treasure trove of information from the National Science Foundation, which has built an online multimedia package on the role of clouds on climate change, entitled, “Clouds: The Wild Card of Climate Change.”

The report discusses the role clouds play in climate change, why making predictions about clouds is difficult, and the ongoing scientific cloud research.

This site is a mix of museum-quality information, candid interviews, and well-reported stories.

Our only suggestion? Check it out when you have some time on your hands…better to get your head in the clouds when you can ponder the air up there.  —Rachel Walker

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