Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Effect of Cloud-Scattered Sunlight on Earth's Energy Balance Depends on Wavelength of Light

26.04.2011
Accounting for wavelength effects will likely improve climate models

Atmospheric scientists trying to pin down how clouds curb the amount of sunlight available to warm the earth have found that it depends on the wavelength of sunlight being measured. This unexpected result will help researchers improve how they portray clouds in climate models.

Additionally, the researchers found that sunlight scattered by clouds — the reason why beachgoers can get sunburned on overcast days — is an important component of cloud contributions to the earth's energy balance. Capturing such contributions will increase the accuracy of climate models, the team from the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reported in Geophysical Research Letters earlier this month.

"The amount of the sun's energy that reaches the earth's surface is the main driver of the earth's temperature. Clouds are one of the least understood aspects of climate change. They can block the sun, but light can also bounce off one cloud into another cloud's shadow and increase the solar energy hitting earth," said PNNL atmospheric scientist Evgueni Kassianov.

White clouds

Clouds both cool down and warm up the earth's surface. They cool the earth by reflecting some sunlight up into outer space, and they warm it by bouncing some sunlight down to the surface. Overall, most clouds have a net cooling effect, but atmospheric scientists need to accurately measure when they cool and warm to produce better climate models that incorporate clouds faithfully.

But it's a hard number to get. Fair-weather clouds are big puffy white objects that bounce a lot of light around. They can make the sky around them look brighter when they're there, but they float about and reform constantly. Cloud droplets and aerosol particles in the sky — tiny bits of dirt and water in the air that cause haziness — scatter light in three dimensions, even into cloud shadows.

To determine the net cloud effect, researchers need two numbers. First they need to measure the total amount of sunlight in a cloudy sky. Then they need to determine how bright that sky would be without the clouds, imagining that same sky to be blue and cloudless, when aerosols are in charge of a sky's brightness. The difference between those numbers is the net cloud effect.

Rainbow energy

Researchers have traditionally estimated the net cloud effect by measuring a broad spectrum of sunlight that makes it to the earth's surface, from ultraviolet to infrared. But clouds are white — that's because the large water droplets within them scatter light of all colors almost equally in the visible spectrum, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes the colors of the rainbow.

On the other hand, aerosols — both within clouds and in the open sky — bounce different-colored light unequally. Broadband measurements that fail to distinguish color differences might be covering up important details, the researchers thought.

Instead of taking one broadband measurement that covers everything from ultraviolet to infrared, Kassianov and crew wanted to determine how individual wavelengths contribute to the net cloud effect. To do so, the team used an instrument that can measure brightness at four different wavelengths of color — violet, green, orange, red — and two of infrared.

In addition, this instrument, a spectral radiometer at DOE's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility located on the southern Great Plains in Oklahoma, allowed the team to calculate what the brightness would be if the day sported a cloudless, blue sky. The spectral measurements taken by the radiometer can be converted into the amount and properties of aerosols. Then aerosol properties can be used to calculate clear blue sky brightness.

Clouds Gone Wild

Comparing measured values for cloudy sky to the calculated values for clear sky, the researchers found that, on average, puffy fair-weather clouds cool down the earth's surface by several percent on a summer day. Although clouds cool overall, two components that the researchers looked at — from direct and scattered sunlight — had opposite effects.

The direct component accounts for the shade provided by clouds and cools the earth. The second component accounts for the sunlight scattered between and under clouds, which makes the sky brighter, warming the earth.

"The sunlight scattered by clouds can heat the surface," said Kassianov. "We all know that we can still get sunburned on cloudy days. This explains why."

In the Oklahoma summer, the scattered-light effect measured by the researchers could be quite large. For example, if a cloud passed over the instrument, the measured cloudy sky brightness exceeded calculated clear sky value by up to 30 percent. Kassianov attributes that large difference to scattered sunlight being "caught on tape" by the radiometer.

"Sunlight scattered by three-dimensional, irregular clouds is responsible for the observed large difference. The one-dimensional cloud simulations currently used in large-scale climate models don't capture this diffuse light," said Kassianov.

Aerosols' Day in the Sky

The team also found that the effect changed depending on the measured visible-spectrum wavelength, and whether the light was direct or scattered.

With direct light, the cooling caused by clouds was weakest on the violet end of the spectrum and strongest at infrared. With scattered light, warming caused by clouds was also weakest at violet and the strongest at infrared. Overall, the least cooling and warming occurred at violet, and the most cooling and warming occurred at infrared.

Because large droplets in clouds scatter sunlight almost uniformly across the spectrum, the clouds themselves can't be the reason why different wavelengths contribute differently to the net cloud effect. Compared to cloud droplets, aerosols are more than 100 times smaller and scatter wavelengths differently. These results suggest that aerosols — which not only cause haziness but contribute to cloud formation as well — are responsible for the wavelength differences, something researchers need to be aware of as they study clouds in the sky.

"If you want to study how aerosols and clouds interact," said Kassianov, "you need to look in the region of the spectrum where aerosol effects are significant. If you want to fish, you go where the fish are biting."

Reference: Kassianov E., Barnard J., Berg L.K., Long C.N., and C. Flynn, Shortwave Spectral Radiative Forcing of Cumulus Clouds from Surface Observations, Geophys Res Lett, April 2, 2011, DOI 10.1029/2010GL046282 (http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2011/2010GL046282.shtml).

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory where interdisciplinary teams advance science and technology and deliver solutions to America's most intractable problems in energy, national security and the environment. PNNL employs 4,900 staff, has an annual budget of nearly $1.1 billion, and has been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since the lab's inception in 1965. Follow PNNL on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Mary Beckman | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.pnl.gov

Further reports about: Atmospheric Kassianov Overall PNNL climate models clouds different wavelengths sunlight wavelength

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht PR of MCC: Carbon removal from atmosphere unavoidable for 1.5 degree target
22.05.2018 | Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) gGmbH

nachricht Monitoring lava lake levels in Congo volcano
16.05.2018 | Seismological Society of America

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

Im Focus: Dozens of binaries from Milky Way's globular clusters could be detectable by LISA

Next-generation gravitational wave detector in space will complement LIGO on Earth

The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...

Im Focus: Entangled atoms shine in unison

A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.

The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Space-like gravity weakens biochemical signals in muscle formation

23.05.2018 | Life Sciences

NIST puts the optical microscope under the microscope to achieve atomic accuracy

23.05.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Magnesium magnificent for plasmonic applications

23.05.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>