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Using Computer Technology To Better Understand Clouds

April 23, 2009

Dutch researchers have developed computer-generated technology to better aid the growing urgency for scientists to improve ways of forecasting climate change, Reuters reported.

Researchers at Delft University of Technology have developed a way to track how particles move in and around computer-simulated clouds in an effort that may shed light on one of the unknowns of climate forecasting: how these masses of water droplets and ice crystals influence changing temperatures.

Additionally, the European and Japanese space agencies are preparing to launch a multi-million-euro satellite project to help demystify clouds.

The simulations will be used to chart data such as the speed, temperature and lifespan of clouds, according to researcher Thijs Heus, a former student at the laboratory.

He said researchers number and track the clouds from their infancy through their entire life cycle as well as giving them color to see if dust particles are moving up or down within and around the clouds.

The team at Delft hopes to gain a more accurate picture of how clouds react to climate change using the computer technology and satellite data.

Harm Jonker, associate professor at the university said there is enormous uncertainty about what clouds will do, and how they will respond to a changing climate, which is a major impediment for climate predictions.

The U.N. Climate Panel said in its 2007 climate assessment report that the earth’s temperature will rise in the next century and could vary from 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with the effect of clouds remaining one of the main sources of uncertainty.

Jonker said it was unclear if there would be more or fewer of low clouds such as cumulus in warmer conditions, which would affect the rate of global warming because of their role in reflecting sunlight away from the earth.

However, he said in a warmer climate with more evaporation it could lead to more of the lower clouds, which could diminish the effects of climate warming.

There might be fewer low clouds as the earth heats up, which would accelerate global warming, he said.

The U.N. Climate Panel has projected rising sea levels and increased risk of droughts, flooding and species extinction as some of the likely effects of global warming, caused mainly by emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

Now, space scientists in Europe and Japan are focusing their studies on clouds due to the pressing need for more research. With an aimed launch by 2014, a new satellite project will attempt to improve understanding of the role clouds play in climate regulation.

The Astrium unit of the European aerospace group EADS is working on the project EarthCARE, which combines the technology of existing cloud observation satellites with new instruments for a more accurate way to examine cloud formations.

Stephen Briggs, head of the Earth Observation, Science, Applications and Future Technologies Department at the European Space Agency, said the satellite is much more complex then anything that’s flying at present.

“The difficulty with clouds is that you can’t see into them, so you have to find ways of looking into their three-dimensional structure, such as with radar systems,” he said.

The Cloud Appreciation Society is a club for cloud watchers spotters that regularly posts a “cloud of the month.”

The Website, where thousands of people capture unusual or striking clouds on camera and share them online, says: “We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.”

“They are rather chaotic things, difficult to predict, difficult to fully understand, but the facts are emerging that they play a crucial and essential role in regulating and affecting the temperatures on the planet,” said Gavin Pretor Pinney, author of “The Cloudspotter’s Guide.”

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