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Kenneth Sassen, Michael K. Griffin, and Gregory C. Dodd


The optical and microphysical properties of subvisual cirrus clouds are derived from ground-based polarization lidar, shortwave radiation flux, and solar corona measurements of two ∼0.75 km deep cirrus located near the tropopause. The first cloud produced no visual manifestations under excellent viewing conditions, and the second appeared to be a persistent aircraft contrail that was generally visible except in the zenith direction. Average lidar linear depolarization ratios and volume backscatter coefficients for the two clouds were 0.19 and 0.35, and 0.6 × 10−3 and 1.4 × 10−3 (km sr)−1, respectively. It is estimated that the zenith-subvisual cirrus contained ice crystals of 25 μm effective diameter at a mean concentration of 25 L−1 and ice mass content of 0.2 mg m−3. The threshold cloud optical thickness for visual-versus-invisible cirrus derived from both broadband shortwave flux and 0.694 μm lidar data, is found to be τc ≈ 0.03. Such τ values are comparable to those of 5–10 km deep stratospheric aerosol clouds of volcanic origin and polar stratospheric clouds, which are episodic in nature. Hence, we conclude that if these clouds are a fairly common feature of the upper troposphere, as recent SAGE satellite measurements would suggest, then the impact of natural and contrail subvisual cirrus on the planet's radiation balance may be relatively significant.

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