What is a cloud?
"The problem is that what we define a cloud as depends on the type of instrument we're using to define it," says atmospheric scientist Steven Ackerman, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It is critical to define and measure clouds accurately, notes Ackerman, because their patterns and formations play an important role in shaping both weather forecasts and longer-term climate predictions. Clouds are also a crucial part of Earth's hydrological and energy cycles, both regulating atmospheric precipitation and determining how much solar energy reaches the Earth.
A number of issues, however, make measurements of planetary cloud cover a very "fuzzy" matter, Ackerman says. Orbiting satellites, for instance, make different types of cloud observations from space. In one approach - known as "active sensing" - satellites discern the presence of clouds by directing energy of varying wavelengths at successive sections of the atmosphere.
The problem, says Ackerman, is that varying that energy threshold by just 3-4 percent can significantly alter cloud cover measurements. Different satellites also introduce variation, with readings differing by up to 5-10 percent between instruments. "It's like assigning grades," says Ackerman. "If you score 90 and above you get an A; but what if someone gets 89.8 and gets a B? Is that fair? Well that's the same problem with measuring clouds."
|Rare cumulonimbus mammatus clouds hang low in the sky above a silhouetted view of Science Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Despite decades of research and increasingly sophisticated tools, cloud scientists are still struggling with one of the most basic issues of their field: how to define a cloud. (Photo: Jeff Miller)|
Over the years, scientists have periodically gathered to refine the science of cloud measurements. It may be time again for that larger discussion, says Ackerman.
This site is no longer updated.
Click this link to have updated ecology news and articles.
About the Author
©2005 All rights reserved