Cloudiness as a Global Climatic Feedback Mechanism: The Effects on the Radiation Balance and Surface Temperature of Variations in Cloudiness

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  • 1 Institute for Space Studies, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, New York, N.Y. 10025
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Abstract

The effect of variation in cloudiness on the climate is considered in terms of 1) a relation between the radiation balance of the earth-atmosphere system and variations in the amount of cloud cover or effective cloud top height, 2) the effect on the surface temperature of variations in cloudiness, and 3) the dynamic coupling or “feedback” effects relating changes in surface temperature to the formation of clouds. The first two points are studied by numerical integration of a simple radiation flux model, and the third point is discussed qualitatively. Global-average radiation balance calculations show that an increase in the amount of low and middle level cloud cover (with cloud top height and cloud albedo fixed) decreases the surface temperature. But, this result for the global-average case does not hold near polar regions, where the albedo of the cloudy areas can he comparable to (or even smaller than) the albedo of the snow-covered cloudless areas, and where, especially in the winter season, the amount of incoming solar radiation at high latitudes is much less than the global-average value of insolation. The exact latitude at which surface cooling changes to surface warming from a given increase in cloud cover amount depends critically upon the local values of the cloud albedo and the albedo of the cloudless areas that are used in the calculation. However, an increase in effective cloud top height (with cloud cover and cloud albedo fixed) increases the surface temperature at all latitudes.

Abstract

The effect of variation in cloudiness on the climate is considered in terms of 1) a relation between the radiation balance of the earth-atmosphere system and variations in the amount of cloud cover or effective cloud top height, 2) the effect on the surface temperature of variations in cloudiness, and 3) the dynamic coupling or “feedback” effects relating changes in surface temperature to the formation of clouds. The first two points are studied by numerical integration of a simple radiation flux model, and the third point is discussed qualitatively. Global-average radiation balance calculations show that an increase in the amount of low and middle level cloud cover (with cloud top height and cloud albedo fixed) decreases the surface temperature. But, this result for the global-average case does not hold near polar regions, where the albedo of the cloudy areas can he comparable to (or even smaller than) the albedo of the snow-covered cloudless areas, and where, especially in the winter season, the amount of incoming solar radiation at high latitudes is much less than the global-average value of insolation. The exact latitude at which surface cooling changes to surface warming from a given increase in cloud cover amount depends critically upon the local values of the cloud albedo and the albedo of the cloudless areas that are used in the calculation. However, an increase in effective cloud top height (with cloud cover and cloud albedo fixed) increases the surface temperature at all latitudes.

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