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Scientists aren’t sure what will happen to clouds as the planet warms

Scientists aren’t sure what will happen to clouds as the planet warms

Why clouds are one of the greatest sources of uncertainty for climate change.

What is a cloud? At the smallest scale, it’s simple: just moisture condensed onto a tiny particle — a speck of dust, a grain of pollen, salt spray from the ocean, or a mote of soot.

But as soon as more than one of these cloud droplets get together, things get chaotic, quickly. Scientists describe clouds as an emergent phenomenon, where smaller constituent parts give rise to sophisticated, self-organized patterns, like a school of fish swimming together or a murmuration of starlings.

This chaos is why clouds are so difficult to predict. But the consequences of this inability to see through clouds go beyond sunshine and shade; it’s also obscuring our understanding of climate change.

“How clouds change determines how warm it gets in response to a certain amount of greenhouse gas forcing,” said Angeline Pendergrass, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Cornell University. And the stakes of how this relationship plays out are high.

Whether a given area sees more rainfall, drought, heating, or cooling in the coming years hinges on what kinds of clouds are present. And right now, scientists are still struggling to understand how this will unfold. Part of this is due to a lack of data about the myriad cloud varieties that are out there, part is due to a lack of computing power, and part is due to a spotty historical record.

In this episode of the Unexplainable podcast, we talk to researchers about why it’s so hard to understand these ubiquitous accoutrements of weather, why it’s so easy to underestimate their power, and why it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate their expressions in the sky.

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