More Arctic clouds may lessen warming

Nearly 2 decades’ of satellite observations suggest that an increase in Arctic cloudiness at certain times of the year may partially counteract the effects of global warming in the region.

On a year-round basis, the total cloudiness at latitudes above 60N–a latitude that swings near Oslo, the southern tip of Greenland, and Seward, Alaska–hasn’t changed significantly in recent years. However, cloud coverage at different seasons has varied, says Jeffrey R. Key, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Madison, Wis. That fluctuation is affecting the region’s weather.

Between 1982 and 1999, winter cloud coverage decreased at the rate of nearly 6 percent per decade. Because there are now fewer nighttime clouds to keep the region’s warmth from radiating back into space, Arctic temperatures for December, January, and February have dropped accordingly, about 0.34C per decade on average, says Key.

During the same 18-year period, spring and summer cloudiness has risen about 3 percent and 1.5 percent per decade, respectively. Daytime clouds block incoming sunlight and thus tend to cool Earth’s surface. Currently in the Arctic, however, other factors associated with global warming mask that effect, the researchers say. For instance, snow melts earlier in the spring than it used to, so the ground absorbs more warming sunlight. Overall, satellites show that surface temperatures in the Arctic during summer have risen about 0.7C per decade.

If cloud coverage in June, July, and August hadn’t increased in recent years, Arctic temperatures might have risen even further. Key and his colleague Xuanji Wang of the University of Wisconsin–Madison present their findings in the March 14 Science.


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