Photo: Umais Bin Sajjad
The distribution of clouds has been dramatically altered, and according to a study published in Nature last Monday, clouds could potentially make the effects of global warming even worse.
Joel Norris, climate scientist and the study’s lead author, explains:
“As global warming occurs, there’s the expectation that the storm track will shift closer to the pole, and the dry areas of the subtropics will expand poleward… An increase of CO2 leads to cooling of the stratosphere, so it’s cooling down. The troposphere underneath is warming up, and so that means as the clouds rise up, they can rise up higher than they did before… I guess what was surprising is that a lot of times we think of climate change as something that’s going to occur in the future… This is happening right now. It’s happened during my lifetime – it was a bit startling.”
Throughout 2016, several drastic events have been linked to climate change. Flooding in Asia, Europe and North America is often labeled the result of a warming planet. The Bramble Cay melomys is the first mammal to allegedly go extinct because of climate change, and a shrinking Antarctica is another mass effect.
Presently, clouds cover about 70 percent of the planet’s surface. While important for maintaining Earth’s temperatures, their constant movement makes them particularly difficult to monitor. Observing satellite cloud data from 1983 to 2009, Norris and his team concluded that the highest clouds had moved further upward due to an increase in greenhouse gases, and that storms both north and south of the equator were moving closer towards the poles. With fewer clouds at their service, the mid-latitude regions are trapping more heat, and bear particularly high levels of radiation.
“What this paper brings to the table is the first credible demonstration that the cloud changes we expect from climate models and theory are currently happening,” Norris explains.
Despite the sense of urgency, not everyone is convinced. NASA scientist Kate Marvel, for example, points out what she feels are flaws in the study, saying cloud shifts are likely the results of volcanic activity. Climate researcher Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research also has his doubts. He says variations in satellite technology, such as new instruments and changes in orbits, may have also directly influenced data over time.
“This is a very good attempt to try and get a handle on this,” Trenberth said. “But I don’t think it’s the final answer.”
Regardless of the skepticism, many believe that climate change is here, and occurring on an almost daily basis. The Nature Conservancy states that climate change could purportedly bring about the extinction of nearly one-fourth of Earth’s species by 2050, and damage will be irreversible if action is not taken.
“Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing, and sea levels are rising,” the organization writes on its website. “And meanwhile, our planet must still supply us – and all living things – with air, water, food and safe places to live. If we don’t act now, climate change will rapidly alter the lands and waters we all depend upon for survival, leaving our children and grandchildren with a very different world.”