Cloud Observations and Atmospheric Processes

Clouds play a very important role in the climate sciences. They modulate incoming solar radiation (visible and near infrared) by reflecting about 30% of the total amount of sunlight reaching Earth. NASA instruments that observe the solar spectrum include but are not limited to the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), the Multiangle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), and Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES), which provide vital information on how clouds affect incoming solar radiation and the Earth’s climate response to it.

Clouds also modulate the outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation emitted by Earth’s surface and atmosphere. NASA instruments that observe portions of the infrared spectrum are the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS), MODIS, and CERES instruments among others. Unique and valuable information is obtained from active profiling instruments. In particular, vertical cloud profiles and precipitation detection are well characterized by the NASA Cloudsat radar, while thin cloud and aerosol properties, including optical thickness, particle size, cloud thermodynamic phase, and aerosol type, are provided by the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) lidar instrument.

The hyper-spectral infrared observations of the AIRS instrument are exceedingly adept at detecting and characterizing cirrus clouds. These clouds create a positive feedback (warming effect) in Earth’s atmosphere since they radiate at lower temperatures and are not an effective barrier to incoming solar radiation.

Get AIRS Cloud Data

AIRS cloud data products are available for download from the NASA Goddard Earth Science Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), accessible from the Get Data page.

Image Samples

Cloud top temperature, effective cloud fraction (2 cloud decks, each product)

Clouds figure 1
Maps of cloud top temperature for the upper layer (upper left) and lower layer (upper right), and effective cloud fraction for the upper layer (lower left) and lower layer (lower right). These maps were produced from gridded values over a six-year period from 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2012. Credit: Dr. Brian Kahn, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The image above shows global mean maps of the two-layer cloud top temperature and effective cloud fraction products. One can see the prevalence of more frequent and colder cloud cover in the tropics and mid-latitude storm tracks, with less frequent and warmer cloud cover in the subtropics.

Cloud thermodynamic phase

Maps of cloud thermodynamic phase: ice cloud frequency (upper left), liquid cloud frequency (lower left), and unknown cloud frequency (upper right). The total cloud frequency for all three phases is shown in the lower right. These maps were produced from gridded values over a six-year period from 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2012.

The image above shows maps of ice, liquid, and unknown cloud frequency for the same time period. Ice clouds are most prevalent in the tropical Western Pacific and Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the mid-latitude storm tracks, and over and downwind of large mountain ranges (e.g., the Rockies, Andes, and Central Asian Mountains). Liquid clouds are most frequent in the major stratocumulus regimes off the western coasts of S. and N. America, Africa, and Australia, as well as in the storm tracks. Unknown phase confidently tracks cloud occurrence, but corresponds to small and shallow cumulus clouds (e.g., trade cumulus) that do not exert a phase signature in the high-spectral-resolution infrared observations.

Ice cloud frequency, optical thickness, effective diameter, cloud top temperature

Maps of ice cloud frequency (upper left, repeat of Fig. 2), ice cloud optical thickness (upper right), and ice cloud effective diameter (lower left), and ice cloud top temperature (lower right). These maps were produced from gridded values over a six-year period from 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2012.

Lastly, ice cloud properties are shown in the image above. Many coherent patterns related to thin, convective, and orographic cirrus are observed. These data are currently being investigated to yield additional insights on the role of ice clouds in Earth’s climate system.