A new study published in Nature warns that climate change is pushing Earth’s clouds higher and towards the poles. Why do these cloud patterns matter? For starters, there isn’t much solar radiation near the poles, so the clouds won’t reflect as much heat back into the atmosphere. Also, when cloud tops are higher they act similar to greenhouse gases, trapping radiation on Earth. These patterns only serve to bolster climate change.

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As scientists work to understand how climate change will affect our planet, one of the biggest uncertainties has been how warming will impact clouds. In the past, it was hard to obtain reliable observations; satellites gathering data typically weren’t designed to collect long-term records.

Scientists at institutions in California and Colorado scrutinized “corrected satellite records” from as far back as the 1980’s. They found cloud patterns similar to those described by climate change simulations. These patterns predict that some clouds will move towards the poles, and some cloud tops will stretch higher into the sky.

The scientists tried to account for natural variations by looking at models that incorporated elements like volcanic eruptions and increasing greenhouse gases, and models that didn’t incorporate those elements. Study lead author Joel Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said, “The pattern of cloud change we see is the pattern associated with global warming.”

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The study doesn’t provide all the answers we need; it doesn’t look at low subtropic clouds, which some scientists speculate will be more important, and the cloud shift patterns could be due to erupting volcanoes in addition to greenhouse gas emissions. However, the study is another step on our path towards understanding how climate change will impact Earth.

Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology director Bjorn Stevens said, “This study reminds us how poorly prepared we are for detecting signals that might portend more extreme (both large and small) climate changes than are presently anticipated.”

+ Nature

Via The Guardian

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