PLOT TWIST: Clouds Are Increasing Global Heating, Scientists Find

While Earth gets warmer, scientists worry that our planet's clouds are making our planet hotter than ever.

In a new study, scientists used a new way to analyze satellite data to suggest that Earth's clouds could accelerate global warming. Based on research from Imperial College London and the University of East Anglia in the U.K., it seems very likely - with an approximately 97.5% chance - that clouds will amplify global warming.

"Over the last few years, there's been a growing amount of evidence that clouds probably have an amplifying effect on global warming," co-author Peer Nowack, a researcher at the University of East Anglia and Imperial's Grantham Institute and Data Science Institute, said in a statement. "However, our new approach allowed us for the first time to derive a global value for this feedback effect using only the highest quality satellite data as our preferred line of evidence."

The Paris Agreement, an international treaty, aims to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or ideally 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels.
The study shows that Earth's climate warming is unlikely to stay below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels, and is more likely to rise more than 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F).

One of the biggest uncertainties in predicting future climate is clouds and how they might change in the future. Clouds can either make warming less or more severe, depending on how dense they are and where they're located.

 

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To study clouds and how they'll affect climate in the future, researchers used satellite data about clouds, their temperatures, humidity, and wind conditions. Researchers found that, in the future, cloud cover will make climate change and rising temperatures a lot worse, both by reflecting less solar radiation away from Earth and by amplifying the greenhouse effect.

"The value of the climate sensitivity is highly uncertain, and this translates into uncertainty in future global warming projections and in the remaining 'carbon budget' — how much we can emit before we reach common targets of 1.5 degrees C or 2 degrees C of global warming," co-author Paulo Ceppi, a researcher at the Grantham Institute, said in the same statement.

"There is therefore a critical need to more accurately quantify how clouds will affect future global warming. Our results will mean we are more confident in climate projections and we can get a clearer picture of the severity of future climate change. This should help us know our limits — and take action to stay within them," Ceppi added.

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