Cloud-hopping scientists aim to improve climate prediction

A group of UK scientists have set off for South America to investigate how swathes of clouds bigger than the US over the Pacific affect climate and weather across the world.

They are part of a £3m project aims to improve the accuracy of climate models and predictions of the future impacts of climate change.

The immense clouds are important because they act like a giant mirror, reflecting sunlight back into space, reducing the amount of energy reaching the earth’s surface, and keeping the ocean cool. Both of these trends affect the amount of heat transported to the tropical Pacific.

The 20-strong team, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), will spend a month in Chile with other scientists from around the world investigating the clouds.

Lead scientist Professor Hugh Coe, from the NCAS, said: “These are some of the largest cloud systems in the world and we know they must play a very significant role in climate change, yet we know that climate models do not represent them very well.”

They have joined forces with the UK Met Office to fly in two research aircraft which will take measurements inside the clouds using newly developed cloud and dust probes.

The measurements will determine how exactly the clouds form, how reflective they are, and what determines their lifetime.

Scientists also help the measurements will show whether the clouds are affected by man-made pollution from extensive mining along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts.

Professor Coe added: “This campaign is a fantastic opportunity to make cutting-edge measurements in a unique environment and merge them with state-of-the-art climate models.

“By working closely with the Met Office and international colleagues in this way, we hope to finally hit some of the uncertainties in current climate models on the head.”

More than 200 international scientists from 10 different countries will be involved in the field campaign, using five aeroplanes and two ships.

Kate Martin

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