Cotton-Ball Clouds Contained

Berg, L., Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Cloud Processes

Cloud Life Cycle

Berg LK, WI Gustafson, EI Kassianov, and D Liping. 2013. "Evaluation of a Modified Scheme for Shallow Convection: Implementation of CuP and Case Studies." Monthly Weather Review, 141(1), 10.1175/mwr-d-12-00136.1.

Cumulus Potential (CuP) parameterization leads to improved forecasts of fair-weather clouds.

Cumulus Potential (CuP) parameterization leads to improved forecasts of fair-weather clouds.

Small clouds equal big impact. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory designed an update to a frequently used computer model that represents the impact of small, puffy, fair-weather clouds on the amount of sunshine reaching Earth’s surface. The new method includes variations in temperature and humidity near the surface and their role in forming these small clouds. Their method offers improved climate forecasts and better cloud prediction, including the amount of sunshine the clouds reflect.

Researchers first used the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model, a regional model that takes a detailed look at clouds and weather features. Their aim was to calculate the impact of fair-weather clouds, also known as shallow cumulus, on the current model results. After finding that WRF couldn’t represent the small clouds, scientists were able to revise the model code to include the missing clouds and their impact. The most substantial change was to replace the default trigger function, an on/off switch used to determine if convective clouds formed, with one that accounts for small changes in temperature and humidity near the surface.

The new method, called the Cumulus Potential (CuP) methodology, was implemented in the WRF to account for all properties of the clouds, including the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth. After incorporating CuP into the WRF model, the team then compared their results to data archived by the U.S. DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility.

Commonly seen clouds over oceans and land look like stretched-out cotton balls. These shallow clouds reflect the sun’s energy back to space. Because they are so small, researchers have not been able to track their reflecting properties through global climate models. Improved understanding of the impact of these fair-weather clouds will provide scientists with more detailed information on weather and climate that was frequently misread.

Previously, these clouds have been too small to calculate in regional modeling tools. “Our “model grid box” is like a large fish net,” explained PNNL’s Dr. Larry Berg, lead scientist. “Previously these puffy, fair-weather clouds, like small fish, fell between the netting and were never caught. With this new method, that is no longer the case.”