Hard-to-detect clouds and water vapor, hidden until now from most atmospheric sensors, could be helping to shape global climate. An instrument package developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has detected layers of moisture, indicative of high-level cirrus clouds, that were missed by standard weather balloons and other instruments. The findings are being presented by NCAR scientist Junhong Wang on Tuesday, February 11, in Long Beach, California, at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS).
The undetected moisture and clouds between about 5 and 9 miles high (8-14 kilometers) probably have little effect on daily weather forecasts, but their omission may be corrupting our view of long-term climate. On average, cirrus clouds tend to warm the planet, as they allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere while trapping radiation emitted from the ground.
"Even small amounts of water vapor and cirrus clouds at these heights are extremely important for climate, as they strongly affect Earths radiation budget," says Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates NCAR. Anthes notes that radiosonde data are often used in computer models to predict the weather, and that the resulting weather analyses are then used for analyzing climate, including the calibration of models that simulate previous and future climates. "It is possible that decades of climate records have underestimated the amount of cirrus clouds in the global atmosphere," says Anthes.
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