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February 28, 2012
Clouds Are Heading Lower


This stunning image of clouds over the southern Indian Ocean was acquired on July 23, 2007, by one of the backward (northward)-viewing cameras of the MISR instrument on NASA’s polar-orbiting Terra spacecraft.

The results of a recent NASA-funded cloud cover study have potential implications for future global climate.
Scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand analyzed the first 10 years of global cloud-top height measurements (from March 2000 to February 2010) from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft.

The study, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, revealed an overall trend of decreasing cloud height. Global average cloud height declined by around 1 percent during the decade, or by around 100 feet to 130 feet (30 meters to 40 meters). Most of the reduction was due to fewer clouds occurring at high altitudes.

Although the record is too short to be definitive, it provides a hint that something important might be going on, according to lead researcher Roger Davies. Longer-term monitoring will be required to determine the significance of the observation for global temperatures. A consistent reduction in cloud height would allow Earth to cool to space more efficiently, reducing the surface temperature of the planet and potentially slowing the effects of global warming.

Davies says this may represent a "negative feedback" mechanism—a change caused by global warming that works to counteract it. "We don't know exactly what causes the cloud heights to lower," he explains. "But it must be due to a change in the circulation patterns that give rise to cloud formation at high altitude."

NASA's Terra spacecraft is scheduled to continue gathering data through the remainder of this decade. Scientists will continue to monitor the MISR data closely to see if the trend continues.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Source: NASA/JPL

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