Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Expanding tropics pushing high altitude clouds towards poles, NASA study finds

06.05.2016

A new NASA analysis of 30-years of satellite data suggests that a previously observed trend of high altitude clouds in the mid-latitudes shifting toward the poles is caused primarily by the expansion of the tropics.

Clouds are among the most important mediators of heat reaching Earth's surface. Where clouds are absent, darker surfaces like the ocean or vegetated land absorb heat, but where clouds occur their white tops reflect incoming sunlight away, which can cause a cooling effect on Earth's surface. Where and how the distribution of cloud patterns change strongly affects Earth's climate. Understanding the underlying causes of cloud migration will allow researchers to better predict how they may affect Earth's climate in the future.


The Hadley cells describe how air moves through the tropics on either side of the equator. They are two of six major air circulation cells on Earth.

Credits: NASA

George Tselioudis, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University in New York City, was interested in which air currents were shifting clouds at high altitude - between about three and a half and six miles high - toward the poles.

The previous suggested reason was that climate change was shifting storms and the powerful air currents known as the jet streams - including the one that traverses the United States - toward the poles, which in turn were driving the movement of the clouds.

To see if that was the case, Tselioudis and his colleagues analyzed the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project data set, which combines cloud data from operational weather satellites, including those run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to provide a 30-year record of detailed cloud observations. They combined the cloud data with a computer re-creation of Earth's air currents for the same period driven by multiple surface observations and satellite data sets.

What they discovered was that the poleward shift of the clouds, which occurs in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, connected more strongly with the expansion of the tropics, defined by the general circulation Hadley cell, than with the movement of the jets.

The Hadley cell is one of the major ways air is moved around the planet. Existing in both hemispheres, it starts when air in the tropics, which is heated at the surface by intense sunlight, warms and rises. At high altitudes it is pushed away from the equator towards the mid-latitudes to the north and south, then it begins to sink back to Earth's surface, closing the loop.

"What we find, and other people have found it as well, is that the sinking branch of the Hadley cell, as the climate warms, tends to be moving poleward," said Tselioudis. "It's like you're making the tropical region bigger." And that expansion causes the tropical air currents to blow into the high altitude clouds, pushing them toward the poles, he said. The results were published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Scientists are working to understand exactly why the tropics are expanding, which they believe is related to a warming climate.

The poleward shift of high altitude clouds affects how much sunlight reaches Earth's surface because when they move, they reveal what's below.

"It's like pulling a curtain," said Tselioudis. And what tends to be revealed depends on location - which in turn affects whether the surface below warms or not.

"Sometimes when that curtain is pulled, as in the case over the North Atlantic ocean in the winter months, this reduces the overall cloud cover" in the lower mid-latitudes, the temperate regions outside of the tropics, Tselioudis said. The high altitude clouds clear to reveal dark ocean below - which absorbs incoming sunlight and causes a warming effect.

However, in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, the high altitude clouds usually clear out of the way to reveal lower altitude clouds below - which continue to reflect sunlight from their white tops, causing little effect on the solar radiation reaching the surface.

When the results are taken together, the bottom line is that the cloud interactions with atmospheric circulation and solar radiation are complicated, and the tropical circulation appears to play a dominant role, said Tselioudis.

That information is a new insight that will likely be used by the climate modeling community, including the scientists who contribute modeling expertise to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Lazaros Oreopoulos, a cloud and radiation budget researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who was not involved in the study. Climate modelers aim for their computer simulations to correspond as closely to reality as possible in order to reliably predict Earth's future climate.

"If current behavior is not well simulated, then confidence in predicted future behavior will be lower," Oreopoulos said. "I anticipate this study to be looked at carefully and affect thinking on these matters."

###

Read the paper at Geophysical Research Letters: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL068242/abstract

Ellen Gray | EurekAlert!

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past
28.04.2017 | National Science Foundation

nachricht Citizen science campaign to aid disaster response
28.04.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>