New tool clears the air on cloud simulations

Oct 26, 2011 by Anne M Stark

(PhysOrg.com) -- Climate models have a hard time representing clouds accurately because they lack the spatial resolution necessary to accurately simulate the billowy air masses.

But Livermore scientists and international collaborators have developed a new tool that will help scientists better represent the observed in the sky in models.

Traditionally, observations from satellites infer the properties of clouds from the radiation field (reflection of sunlight back into space, or thermal emission of the planet). However, to accurately utilize satellite data in climate model assessment, a tool is required that allows an apples-to-apples comparison between the clouds simulated in a climate model and the retrieved from satellites.

"The models are becoming more interactive and are taking into account the radiation data from the satellite observations and is an important part of the process of making better climate models," said the Lab's Stephen Klein, who along with LLNL's Yuying Zhang and other collaborators have developed the Cloud-Feedback-Model Intercomparison Project Observation Simulator Package (COSP).

"The models have been improving and refining their representations of clouds and COSP will play an important role in furthering this improvement," Klein said.

Climate models struggle to represent clouds accurately because the models lack the spatial resolution to fully represent clouds. Global climate models typically have a 100-kilometer resolution while meteorological models have a 20-kilometer range. However, to accurately represent clouds as seen in , the scale would need to be from the 500-meter resolution to 1-kilometer range.

"But those small scales are not practical for weather or global climate models," Klein said. "Our tool will better connect with what the satellites observe – how many clouds, their levels and their reflectivity."

The COSP is now used worldwide by most of the major models for climate and weather prediction, and it will play an important role in the evaluation of models that will be reviewed by the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on , Klein said.

The COSP allows for a meaningful comparison between model-simulated clouds and corresponding satellite observations. In other words, what would a satellite see if the atmosphere had the clouds of a climate model?

"COSP is important and necessary development because modeled clouds cannot be directly compared with observational data; the model representation of clouds is not directly equivalent to what satellites are able to see," Klein explained. "The COSP eliminates significant ambiguities in the direct comparison of model simulations with satellite retrievals."

COSP includes a down-scaler that allows for large-scale to estimate the clouds at the satellite-scale. The tool also allows modelers to diagnose how well models are able to simulate clouds as well as how climate change alters clouds. The tool already has revealed climate model limitations such as too many optically thick clouds, too few mid-level clouds and an overestimate of the frequency of precipitation. Additionally, COSP has shown that climate change leads to an increase in optical thickness and increases the altitude of high clouds and decreases the amount of low and mid-level clouds.

Explore further: Puget Sound quake likely in Seattle Fault zone, geologists say

More information: More information about the COSP appears in the August issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/1… .1175/2011BAMS2856.1

Related Stories

The insides of clouds may be the key to climate change

Feb 17, 2007

As climate change scientists develop ever more sophisticated climate models to project an expected path of temperature change, it is becoming increasingly important to include the effects of aerosols on clouds, according ...

Down-and-dirty details of climate modeling

May 04, 2011

For the first time, researchers have developed a comprehensive approach to look at aerosols—those fine particles found in pollution—and their effect on clouds and climate. Scientists from Pacific ...

Study could mean greater anticipated global warming

Nov 22, 2010

Global climate models disagree widely in the magnitude of the warming we can expect with increasing carbon dioxide. This is mainly because the models represent clouds differently. A new modeling approach successfully ...

Connecting the dots on aerosol details

Jul 27, 2011

Predicting future climate change hangs on understanding aerosols, considered the fine details in the atmosphere. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric ...

Recommended for you

Study links changing winds to warming in Pacific

Sep 22, 2014

A new study released Monday found that warming temperatures in Pacific Ocean waters off the coast of North America over the past century closely followed natural changes in the wind, not increases in greenhouse ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hush1
not rated yet Oct 26, 2011
This is good. Models having the same eyes, the same senses as satellites.