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David A. Siegel, Toby K. Westberry, and J. Carter Ohlmann

Abstract

It is well recognized that clouds regulate the flux of solar radiation reaching the sea surface. Clouds also affect the spectral distribution of incident irradiance. Observations of spectral and total incident solar irradiance made from the western equatorial Pacific Ocean are used to investigate the “color” of clouds and to evaluate its role in upper-ocean radiant heating. Under a cloudy sky, values of the near-ultraviolet to green spectral irradiance are a significantly larger fraction of their clear-sky flux than are corresponding clear-sky fractions calculated for the total solar flux. For example, when the total solar flux is reduced by clouds to one-half of that for a clear sky, the near-ultraviolet spectral flux is only reduced ∼35% from its clear-sky value. An empirical parameterization of the spectral cloud index is developed from field observations and is verified using a plane-parallel, cloudy-sky radiative transfer model. The implications of cloud color on the determination of ocean radiant heating rates and solar radiation transmission are assessed using both model results and field determinations. The radiant heating rate of the upper 10 cm of the ocean (normalized to the climatological incident solar flux) may be reduced by a factor of 2 in the presence of clouds. This occurs because the near-infrared wavelengths of solar radiation, which are preferentially attenuated by clouds, are absorbed within the upper 10 cm or so of the ocean while the near-ultraviolet and blue spectral bands propagate farther within the water column. The transmission of the solar radiative flux to depth is found to increase under a cloudy sky. The results of this study strongly indicate that clouds must be included in the specification of ocean radiant heating rates for air–sea interaction studies.

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