Research Articles

Cloud-Radiative Forcing and Climate: Results from the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment

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Science  06 Jan 1989:
Vol. 243, Issue 4887, pp. 57-63
DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4887.57


The study of climate and climate change is hindered by a lack of information on the effect of clouds on the radiation balance of the earth, referred to as the cloud-radiative forcing. Quantitative estimates of the global distributions of cloud-radiative forcing have been obtained from the spaceborne Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) launched in 1984. For the April 1985 period, the global shortwave cloud forcing [-44.5 watts per square meter (W/m2)] due to the enhancement of planetary albedo, exceeded in magnitude the longwave cloud forcing (31.3 W/m2) resulting from the greenhouse effect of clouds. Thus, clouds had a net cooling effect on the earth. This cooling effect is large over the mid-and high-latitude oceans, with values reaching -100 W/m2. The monthly averaged longwave cloud forcing reached maximum values of 50 to 100 W/m2 over the convectively disturbed regions of the tropics. However, this heating effect is nearly canceled by a correspondingly large negative shortwave cloud forcing, which indicates the delicately balanced state of the tropics. The size of the observed net cloud forcing is about four times as large as the expected value of radiative forcing from a doubling of CO2. The shortwave and longwave components of cloud forcing are about ten times as large as those for a CO2 doubling. Hence, small changes in the cloud-radiative forcing fields can play a significant role as a climate feedback mechanism. For example, during past glaciations a migration toward the equator of the field of strong, negative cloud-radiative forcing, in response to a similar migration of cooler waters, could have significantly amplified oceanic cooling and continental glaciation.

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