Environmental & Climate Sciences Department Seminar

"Observed and modeled sensitivity of trade-wind clouds to changes in the large-scale flow"

Presented by Louise Nuijens, MIT

Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 11:00 am — Conference Room, Bldg 815E

Large areas over subtropical and tropical oceans experience neither strong subsidence nor strong ascent. In these regions shallow trade-wind clouds prevail, whose vertical distribution has emerged as a key factor determining the sensitivity of our climate in global climate models. But how susceptible are trade-wind clouds in our current climate? Do we understand the role of the large-scale flow in observed variations in these clouds? And do global models represent those patterns of variability?

Using long time series of ground-based and space-borne remote sensing in the trades (the Barbados Cloud Observatory), combined with Large-Eddy Simulation, I will analyze how shallow cumuli and their associated cloudiness respond to changes in the large-scale atmospheric state, providing constraints on modeled cloud feedbacks.

Unlike climate models, the major component of trade-wind cloudiness, which is cloudiness near the saturation level, appears remarkably robust to variability in the thermal structure of the lower atmosphere, and I will explain how convection itself plays an important role in that robustness. Variability in cloudiness is far more pronounced at levels further aloft, related to the deepening of shallow convection on mesoscale and synoptic time scales. This mesoscale variability explains, in part, why cloudiness is poorly predicted by large-scale factors on longer time scales. However, variations in vertical motion and wind speed are shown to play an important role, suggesting that we should be mindful of how the large-scale flow conditions the lower atmosphere. Global models underestimate the strength of a relationship with wind speed and diverge in particular in their response to large-scale vertical motion.

I will explain why models overestimate the low cloud feedback in these regions, and discuss possible pathways through which these seemingly persistent clouds are critical to climate, even if their feedback on global mean temperature is small

Hosted by: Mike Jensen

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