Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Friday, January 29, 2021

Cooling effect of ship-track clouds is overestimated

Finding has implications for one potential solar geoengineering strategy

A photo of ship tracks stretching across the North Pacific Ocean near the Aleutian Islands, as seen from the International Space Station, with a solar panel of the ISS in the top right of the photograph.
Ship tracks stretching across the North Pacific Ocean near the Aleutian Islands, as seen from the International Space Station on April 28,2019. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Low hanging clouds that hover over large areas of the world’s oceans exert a cooling influence on climate by reflecting solar radiation back to space. Some have suggested that humans could offset the impacts of global warming by artificially seeding these clouds with aerosol particles to brighten them and increase their reflectivity.

To better understand the formation and reflectivity of marine clouds, researchers often study the exhaust plumes of particles from ship smoke stacks which, when they enter clouds, form long, linear cloud tracks across the oceans. Now, a new study in Science by CIRES and NOAA researchers finds that studies that analyze these ship-track clouds may have strongly overestimated the effect of particles on natural clouds, a finding that has implications for a climate intervention strategy known as marine cloud brightening. 

“Ship-track clouds are a good example of how aerosol effects on clouds are traditionally thought of, and of how they are still represented in most climate models,” said lead author Franziska Glassmeier, a former CIRES scientist in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory (CSL), now with the Technical University of Delft. The problem, she said, is that these clouds are simply too short-lived to provide a good model for how most marine clouds work. 

To reach their conclusions, the researchers used several new tools, including high-resolution models covering a very large range of conditions, as well as machine learning approaches. Focusing on the widespread clouds that do not produce precipitation, they show that cloud thinning is more efficient when there are more aerosol particles in the cloud and the drops are smaller. “That reduces the amount of water in the cloud and lets more solar radiation pass through, reducing the cloud’s cooling effect,” explains paper co-author Fabian Hoffmann, a former CIRES Visiting Fellow in NOAA’s CSL, now with the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. Takanobu Yamaguchi, a CIRES scientist in NOAA’s CSL, is another of the paper’s co-authors. 

The researchers found that analysis of ship track-created clouds cannot be generalized to estimate the climate effect of this aerosol-related cloud thinning. In fact, such studies can overestimate their cooling effect by up to 200 percent, the authors said. 

"This reduced cooling effect due to cloud thinning needs to be taken into account for models to correctly simulate the role of stratocumulus clouds in the climate system,” said co-author Graham Feingold, a cloud, aerosol and climate researcher in NOAA’s CSL. “The discovery in this paper is that this cloud thinning increases with time, meaning the cooling effect decreases with time. This is something that had not been considered before.”

The finding has implications for research into marine cloud brightening, a proposed climate engineering technique that would artificially inject aerosols into the atmosphere over the oceans in an effort to make clouds brighter and reflect more incoming sunlight back into space, cooling the water beneath.  

“Our results show that even in terms of cloud physics, marine cloud brightening may not be as straightforward as it may seem,” Glassmeier said. “A poorly planned project could even result in the opposite of what was intended. There is still a lot to learn about how these tiny aerosol particles influence clouds and eventually climate.”

This story was written by NOAA Communications


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