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Earth's clouds are getting lower

This image of clouds over the southern Indian Ocean was acquired on July 23, 2007 by one of the backward (northward)-viewing cameras of the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's polar-orbiting Terra spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

February 21, 2012

By Alan Buis,
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Earth's clouds got a little lower — about one percent on average — during the first decade of this century, finds a new study based on NASA satellite data. The results have potential implications for future global climate.

Scientists at the University of Auckland in New Zealand analyzed the first 10 years of global cloud-top height measurements (from March 2000 to February 2010) from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft. The study, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, revealed an overall trend of decreasing cloud height. Global average cloud height declined by around one percent over the decade, or by around 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 meters). Most of the reduction was due to fewer clouds occurring at very high altitudes.

Data from NASA's MISR instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft show that global average cloud height declined by about 1 percent over the decade from 2000 to 2010, or around 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 meters). Credit: University of Auckland/NASA JPL-Caltech Data from NASA's MISR instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft show that global average cloud height declined by about 1 percent over the decade from 2000 to 2010, or around 100 to 130 feet (30 to 40 meters). Credit: University of Auckland/NASA JPL-Caltech.


Lead researcher Roger Davies said that while the record is too short to be definitive, it provides a hint that something quite important might be going on. Longer-term monitoring will be required to determine the significance of the observation for global temperatures.

A consistent reduction in cloud height would allow Earth to cool to space more efficiently, reducing the surface temperature of the planet and potentially slowing the effects of global warming. This may represent a "negative feedback" mechanism — a change caused by global warming that works to counteract it. "We don't know exactly what causes the cloud heights to lower," says Davies. "But it must be due to a change in the circulation patterns that give rise to cloud formation at high altitude."

Patterns that relate changes in cloud-top height with El Niño/ La Niña indicators. Credit: University of Auckland/NASA JPL-Caltech Patterns that relate changes in cloud-top height with El Niño/ La Niña indicators. Credit: University of Auckland/NASA JPL-Caltech


NASA's Terra spacecraft is scheduled to continue gathering data through the remainder of this decade. Scientists will continue to monitor the MISR data closely to see if this trend continues.

For more information, see the University of Auckland news release.


This image of clouds over the southern Indian Ocean was acquired on July 23, 2007 by one of the backward (northward)-viewing cameras of the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA's polar-orbiting Terra spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.