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Casey J. Wall
Trude Storelvmo
Joel R. Norris
, and
Ivy Tan


Shortwave radiative feedbacks from Southern Ocean clouds are a major source of uncertainty in climate projections. Much of this uncertainty arises from changes in cloud scattering properties and lifetimes that are caused by changes in cloud thermodynamic phase. Here we use satellite observations to infer the scattering component of the cloud-phase feedback mechanism and determine its relative importance by comparing it with an estimate of the overall temperature-driven cloud feedback. The overall feedback is dominated by an optical thinning of low-level clouds. In contrast, the scattering component of cloud-phase feedback is an order of magnitude smaller and is primarily confined to free-tropospheric clouds. The small magnitude of this feedback component is a consequence of counteracting changes in albedo from cloud optical thickening and enhanced forward scattering by cloud particles. These results indicate that shortwave cloud feedback is likely positive over the Southern Ocean and that changes in cloud scattering properties arising from phase changes make a small contribution to the overall feedback. The feedback constraints shift the projected 66% confidence range for the global equilibrium temperature response to doubling atmospheric CO2 by about +0.1 K relative to a recent consensus estimate of cloud feedback.

Significance Statement

Understanding how clouds respond to global warming is a key challenge of climate science. One particularly uncertain aspect of the cloud response involves a conversion of ice particles to liquid droplets in extratropical clouds. Here we use satellite data to infer how cloud-phase conversions affect climate by changing cloud albedo. We find that ice-to-liquid conversions increase cloud optical thickness and shift the scattering angles of cloud particles toward the forward direction. These changes in optical properties have offsetting effects on cloud albedo. This finding provides new insight about how changes in cloud phase affect climate change.

Open access