If you look at the sky outside right now, chances are you’ll see a cloud. On a normal day over half of the planet is covered in clouds. These masses of water vapor operate at a wide range of altitudes, and take on a variety of types depending on their location and height.
The general cycle of cloud generation, which relies on the creation of water vapor from evaporation off the planet’s surface or from the respiration of plants, and the subsequent condensation of the vapor in the cooler reaches of the atmosphere, is mostly agreed upon among scientists today.
Yet this process is deceptively powerful. As research has delved deeper into the unseen drivers and effects of clouds on the overall environment, the seemingly simple cloud is turning out to be one of the most impactful drivers of – and protectors against – climate change brought about by global warming.
There is always a good amount of gaseous water vapor in the air around us. While it is usually invisible to the naked eye, there is enough vaporized H2O in the atmosphere to fill over 115 billion Tesla Cybertrucks to capacity. Water vapor wanders the sky until it finds a location amenable to condensation.
Clouds tend to form when the air is cooled to the point that water vapor condenses on microscopic particles of dust, sand, or even bacteria floating around. These tiny droplets then slowly accumulate water from the surrounding environment until they are too heavy to fly. Since the 1940s, climate scientists have devoted countless hours to divining the exact methods of cloud generation, some with the hopes of actually controlling when and where water vapor condenses into clouds and then rain or snow.
Recent studies have worked to develop specific chemicals or microscopic structures that sport, in scientific terms, more numerous or pronounced nooks and crannies than normal dust.
Some researchers believe that by dispersing these materials into the air, their unique physical properties would induce water to condense in temperatures or locations that would otherwise remain dry. In theory, this could be used to provide water in drought-prone areas.
It could also be used to knock any excess water vapor out of the surrounding atmosphere to avoid future storms, as was attempted during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. This type of direct cloud influence is known as cloud seeding.
While lab tests have provided insight into the possible applications of this technique, real world tests have proven to be less than reliable. If anything, they point to the fact that in reality many more factors go into cloud formation than what materials water vapor ends up condensing onto.
After they form, but before they disperse through precipitation or other means, clouds perform important services in the regulation of our atmosphere. In fact, it seems that dense, low-lying clouds reflect radiation from the sun and help to cool the planet as they patrol the skies.
Unfortunately, while these bottom floaters constantly reflect energy back into space, clouds higher in the atmosphere can bounce energy back towards the planet instead. The long-term effects of this atmospheric energy pinball are still unknown to scientists, and clouds are an important unknown in climate models estimating the effects of climate change.
Recent research has found that as the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere increase, low-lying reflective clouds might become less frequent, which would lead to faster global warming as a result.
Even if the clouds of the future are different than the ones we are used to, they will certainly play a key role in the path our climate takes.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.