7.1 Clouds and the Earth radiative budget

Figure 18View Image showed that on a global average clouds increase the planetary albedo by reflecting incoming solar irradiance back to space but decrease outgoing longwave radiation by acting in a similar way to greenhouse gases. The magnitude of the reflectance depends on the optical thickness of the cloud, the water phase (liquid or ice) and the cloud particle sizes and shapes. The degree of longwave trapping depends on the transmissivity of the cloud and also its temperature: high (cold) cloud is more effective because it emits less radiation to space while trapping the (warm) radiation from below. The net effect of cloud on the radiation budget depends on whether the shortwave or longwave effect is larger and thus on the location, height and microphysical properties of the cloud.

Studies using satellite data show that there are strong regional, as well as seasonal, variations in cloud radiative effects. Figure 44View Image presents an analysis of radiation budget and cloud data which shows that the impact of cloud in trapping longwave radiation is greatest in the tropics. In the shortwave the largest effects on albedo are found where the optical depth of the cloud is thickest but over the bright Antarctic plateau clouds actually reduce albedo. The net impact of cloud on the radiation budget (i.e. absorbed solar radiation minus emitted thermal radiation) is negative except for small regions in the northern sub-tropics and at the south pole. Thus the global effect of cloud is to reduce the net incoming radiation, i.e. to cool the planet.

View Image

Figure 44: Sensitivity (in Wm–2 per 0.1 increase in fractional cloud cover) of radiation fields (from ERBE data) to cloud cover (from ISCCP data). The curve labelled ASR shows the response of absorbed solar radiation to the presence of cloud; that labelled OLR the response of outgoing longwave radiation. From Ringer and Shine (1997).

A factor which induces a change in cloud cover, drop size or altitude will introduce a radiative forcing. If, however, such a change is brought in response to another forcing factor then it should be viewed as a feedback on the initial forcing. For example, an increase in greenhouse gases might cause a surface warming, enhanced convection and an increase in cloud cover. The thick convective cloud produced would have a negative radiative forcing and thus reduce that due to the greenhouse gases alone. Such feedback effects, however, are implicitly included in the value of the climate forcing parameter λ. Thus the cloud produced by a dynamical response to other forcings can not be viewed as an additional forcing component. Only if changes to cloud properties are induced in situ by chemical or microphysical processes can they produce a radiative forcing, in the climate change sense, in their own right.

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