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Daily RC Article 118

The Cloud Conundrum: Unveiling Earth's Climate X-Factor


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Recent data points that surfaced in China, then Europe, then all over, point to a picture of a brief, cataclysmic hot spell 56 million years ago, now known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). After heat-trapping carbon leaked into the sky from an unknown source, the planet, which was already several degrees Celsius hotter than it is today, gained an additional 6 degrees. The ocean turned jacuzzi-hot near the equator and experienced mass extinctions worldwide. On land, primitive monkeys, horses and other early mammals marched northward, following vegetation to higher latitudes. The mammals also miniaturized over generations, as leaves became less nutritious in the carbonaceous air. Violent storms ravaged the planet; the geologic record indicates flash floods and protracted droughts.

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The PETM doesn’t only provide a past example of CO2-driven climate change; scientists say it also points to an unknown factor that has an outsize influence on Earth’s climate. When the planet got hot, it got really hot. Ancient warming episodes like the PETM were always far more extreme than theoretical models of the climate suggest they should have been. Even after accounting for differences in geography, ocean currents and vegetation during these past episodes, paleoclimatologists find that something big appears to be missing from their models – an X-factor whose wild swings leave no trace in the fossil record.

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Evidence is mounting in favour of the answer that experts have long suspected but have only recently been capable of exploring in detail. “It’s quite clear at this point that the answer is clouds,” said Matt Huber, a paleoclimate modeler at Purdue University. Clouds currently cover about two-thirds of the planet at any moment. But computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control.

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New findings reported today in the journal Nature Geoscience make the case that the effects of cloud loss are dramatic enough to explain ancient warming episodes like the PETM — and to precipitate future disaster. Climate physicists at the California Institute of Technology performed a state-of-the-art simulation of stratocumulus clouds, the low-lying, blankety kind that have by far the largest cooling effect on the planet… In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.

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Once clouds go away, the simulated climate “goes over a cliff,” said Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He noted, scientists must now make an effort to independently replicate the work. Huber said the stratocumulus tipping point helps explain the volatility that’s evident in the paleoclimate record. “Schneider and co-authors have cracked open a Pandora’s box of potential climate surprises,” he said, adding that, as the mechanisms behind vanishing clouds become clear, “all of a sudden this enormous sensitivity that is apparent from past climates isn’t something that’s just in the past. It becomes a vision of the future.”

The PETM, a dramatic warming event 56 million years ago, reveals a significant climate mystery. Scientists suspect clouds, as a missing X-factor, amplify warming when they dwindle. Recent simulations indicate that losing specific clouds could trigger an 8-degree Celsius rise, compounding CO2-driven warming. This research suggests that vanished clouds in Earth's past may forewarn future climate disasters, urging further investigation and a rethinking of climate models.
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