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Atmosphere, Climate



"I've looked at clouds from both sides now…I really don't know clouds at all" Joni Mitchell

The National Science Foundation has called clouds "The Wild Card of Climate Change" highlighting the uncertainty behind the role of clouds in affecting climate change. The uncertainty behind the role of clouds is also evident in the graph on the right that shows projected changes for global surface temperature for different climate models and emission scenarios. A prominent feature of this graph is the large colored envelopes that surround each projection indicating the variability between models. A major contributor of these envelopes is the uncertainty that clouds play in either mitigating (negative feedback) or enhancing (positive feedback) temperature change.

Clouds can act as an umbrella, shielding the earth's surface from incoming solar radiation resulting in an overall cooling effect. Low, optically thick clouds like stratus types typically act as umbrellas and many people have experienced the temperature drop when clouds roll in after a sunny day at the beach. High, thin cirrus-like clouds have the opposite effect. High thin clouds act like blankets being relatively transparent to incoming shortwave radiation. To outgoing longwave radiation, however, high thin clouds absorb the energy, then emit it again, but at their lower temperature (i.e., less energy out; and some energy back down. This results in a positive feedback process and increasing in warming. This process can be experienced in the desert Southwest where late evening clouds can trap outgoing longwave radiation and hinder cooling at night.


Research by Andrew Dressler, a Texas A&M scientist, indicates that clouds likely provide a positive feedback to carbon dioxide induced global warming. As interns to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO), your group has been ask to conduct an impact analysis of this positive feedback. Your Earth system analysis of this event will assist in further understanding what is taking place and in possibly developing recommendations to mitigate or adapt to climate variability.

Because of your work with clouds and their role in climate variability, NASA has made available to you the Live Access Server (LAS) which contains microsets from various NASA satellites. Your team has been asked to analyze cloud parameters to determine if significant changes in clouds have been observed in the Great Lakes region during the past 17 years. You may also consider how this region compares with others around the world. Available data addresses monthly cloud coverage (high, mid and low level clouds) as well as cloud height, opacity and temperature. Your findings may assist in understanding what, if any, changes are taking place in clouds as a result of climate variability.

Primer on using the Live Access Server.
Click here for tutorials on using the My NASA DATA Live Access Server.

Use of NASA's Earth Observations data can assist in looking at cloud data. Click on the atmosphere button for cloud data. A primer on how to use NEO is found here.


Date: 6/24/2011

Scenario Images:

Temperature projections
This graph shows temperature projections using different global climate models and emission portfolios. From NASA's Earth Observatory.

Cloud Radiative Effect
Cloud radiative effect (CRE)for North America in December 2010. CRE is the radiative contribution of clouds calculated by subtracting the all-sky flux from the clear-sky. A positive effect indicates clouds are associated with a warming; negative values indicate a cooling effect.

Cloud Simulation
Click here to see an animation of positive climate feedback likely created by clouds during the past decade. Credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.



A Less Shady Future (Cycle A)
A short article that reports on a study that speculates that more warming will decrease low level clouds and result in more warming.


A Primer on Clouds From NASA (Cycle A)
A PDF from NASA that covers basics of cloud formation, the impact of clouds on climate and the importance of clouds in climate models.


Balance of Power in the Earth-Sun System (Cycle A)
A NASA PDF that provides detailed information on atmospheric energy transfers including the important role of clouds.


Clouds and Climate (Cycle A)
A short video on the role of clouds in climate change.


Clouds and Climate Change: The Thick and Thin of It (Cycle A)
The role of clouds in affecting climate is complex. This brief article outlines some research on the interplay between clouds and climates, including some surprises about thick vs. thin clouds.


David Randall: The Role of Clouds and Water Vapor in Climate Change (Cycle A)
A YouTube video of Dr. David Randall, an expert on clouds and climate change at Colorado State University. Rather long - >1 hour but very informative.


Changing Global Cloudiness (Cycle B)
A summary of the role clouds play in the climate including information on satellite observations.


Clouds Will Cause More Warming (Cycle B)
A report on a study that proposes that more cloud formation due to climate change will cause more warming.


Clouds: The Wildcard of Climate Change (Cycle B)
This is an important resource that includes an excellent array of information, video, images and reports related to clouds and climate change.


IPCC 2007: Clouds (Cycle B)
This part of the IPCC report contains three sections on clouds including information on measurement of cloud coverage, how cloud cover has changed over and the measurement of cloud using satellites.


IPCC 2007: The Role of Clouds in Climate and Climate Models (Cycle B)
This web page provides detailed information on the feedbacks associated with clouds and how cloud coverage is integrated into climate models.


NASA CERES (Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System) Home Page (Cycle B)
Includes an excellent array of images and some education materials.


Cloud-seeding ships could combat climate change (Cycle C)
A potential geo-engineering solution to mitigate increases in global temperature.


Education Resources from CloudSat (Cycle C)
A list of education resources from CloudSat; a cloud research group.


Image of net cloud radiative forcing (Cycle C)
This image from NASA shows one model run of the role of clouds in impacting temperature.


Problems with Salt Water Injection to Produce Clouds (Cycle C)
A short report on the potential drawbacks of geo-engineering to form clouds over the ocean.


Sample Investigations:


S'COOL- Students Cloud Observations on Line (Cycle A)
The S'COOL project integrates student observations of clouds with satellite information in order to "ground truth" or validate data for NASA's CERES satellite. Teachers are required to register with the project although there is also a part of the site where "rovers" can participate. S'COOL has gathered over 90,000 observations from 82 countries.
Difficulty: beginner


Science Project: Clouds for Kids (Cycle A)
Climate and weather information can be learned through observations of clouds. This activity provides a framework and ideas for using clouds as a gateway to understanding climate and weather.
Difficulty: beginner
More advanced students can use digital cameras and computers to construct charts, galleries and videos.


Cloud Module Storybook and Learning Activities (Cycle B)
Information and simple activities on clouds - good for young elementary grades.
Difficulty: beginner


Does Cloud Type Affect Rainfall? (Cycle B)
From My NASA Data, this lesson uses satellite data to compare precipitation (rainfall) to cloud type.
Difficulty: beginner


Globe (Cycle C)
The Globe Program includes collecting atmospheric data such as cloud type and cloud cover. the Globe website is also a decent portal for data.
Difficulty: intermediate


Investigating the Climate System: Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Budget (Cycle C)
From IGES, a module with several activities that address the role of clouds in the climate system.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Changes in earth and sky
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Transfer of energy
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Risks and benefits
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • understand various types of patterns and functional relationships;
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to geometry and spatial sense so that all students—
      • use visualization and spatial reasoning to solve problems both within and outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
      • understand and apply basic notions of chance and probability.
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
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