What is the net feedback from clouds?
What the science says...
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Evidence is building that net cloud feedback is likely positive and unlikely to be strongly negative.
The effect of clouds in a warming world is complicated. One challenge is that clouds cause both warming and cooling. Low-level clouds tend to cool by reflecting sunlight. High-level clouds tend to warm by trapping heat.
As the planet warms, clouds have a cooling effect if there are more low-level clouds or less high-level clouds. Clouds would cause more warming if the opposite is true. To work out the overall effect, scientists need to know which types of clouds are increasing or decreasing.
Some climate scientists, such as Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer, are skeptical that greenhouse gas emissions will cause dangerous warming. Their skepticism is based mainly on uncertainty related to clouds. They believe that when it warms, low-level cloud cover increases. This would mean the Earth's overall reflectiveness would increase. This causes cooling, which would cancel out some of the warming from an increased greenhouse effect.
However, recent evidence indicates this is not the case. Two separate studies have looked at cloud changes in the tropics and subtropics using a combination of ship-based cloud observations, satellite observations and climate models. Both found that cloud feedback in this region appears to be positive, meaning more warming.
Another study used satellite measurements of cloud cover over the entire planet to measure cloud feedback. Although a very small negative feedback (cooling) could not be ruled out, the overall short-term global cloud feedback was probably positive (warming). It is very unlikely that the cloud feedback will cause enough cooling to offset much of human-caused global warming.
While clouds remain a significant uncertainty, the evidence is building that clouds will probably cause the planet to warm even further, and are very unlikely to cancel out much of human-caused global warming. It's also important to remember that there many other feedbacks besides clouds. There is a large amount of evidence that the net feedback is positive and will amplify global warming.
Last updated on 14 March 2013 by John Cook. View Archives