Cirrus clouds
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Ronald L Holle

Clouds are Clues to Climate!
News story originally written on August 13, 2002

Cirrus clouds are thin and wispy, sitting very high in the sky, 20,000 to 60,000 feet above the ground. They usually sit above all the other clouds and are made of millions of tiny crystals of ice. These clouds may look harmless because they don't cause big thunderstorms or drop tons of snow, but these thin wispy clouds may be clues to how Earth's climate is changing.

Researchers from NASA and several other organizations are studying cirrus clouds to understand how our changing climate may cause changes in the amounts of cirrus clouds and how the amounts of cirrus clouds may cause climate change.

Looking at the clouds from above with satellites, scientists have seen that there are more cirrus clouds around the world than usual. This may be because of changes in Earth's climate. Global warming is raising the temperature of the Earth's surface over tens and hundreds of years. Scientists suspect that more cirrus clouds form when the Earth is warmer, so more cirrus clouds would form today than several years ago.

However, not only does climate affect the cirrus clouds, but cirrus clouds can also affect climate. They may warm Earth by acting like a blanket trapping heat that is rising from the planet. Or, they may cool Earth by acting like a sun umbrella blocking light from reaching the planet’s surface.

To understand the composition and structure of the clouds, scientists will make measurements of cirrus clouds from many different levels in the atmosphere, from near the Earth's surface up to 70,000 feet in altitude, as well as looking at the clouds from above with satellites. Hopefully their research will help us better understand how cirrus clouds may change Earth's climate in the future.

Last modified August 14, 2002 by Lisa Gardiner.

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