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Journal Article

Optically thin clouds in the trades


Mieslinger,  Theresa
IMPRS on Earth System Modelling, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;
Meteorologisches Institut, Universität Hamburg;
Director’s Research Group AES, The Atmosphere in the Earth System, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;


Stevens,  Bjorn       
Director’s Research Group AES, The Atmosphere in the Earth System, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;


Kölling,  Tobias
Tropical Cloud Observations, The Atmosphere in the Earth System, MPI for Meteorology, Max Planck Society;

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Mieslinger, T., Stevens, B., Kölling, T., Brath, M., Wirth, M., & Buehler, S. A. (2022). Optically thin clouds in the trades. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 22, 6879-6898. doi:10.5194/acp-22-6879-2022.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0008-9B66-7
We develop a new method to describe the total cloud cover including optically thin clouds in trade wind cumulus cloud fields. Climate models and large eddy simulations commonly underestimate the cloud cover, while estimates from observations largely disagree on the cloud cover in the trades. Currently, trade wind clouds significantly contribute to the uncertainty in climate sensitivity estimates derived from model perturbation studies. To simulate clouds well, especially how they change in a future climate, we have to know how cloudy it is.

In this study we develop a method to quantify the cloud cover from a cloud-free perspective. Using well-known radiative transfer relations we retrieve the cloud-free contribution in high-resolution satellite observations of trade cumulus cloud fields during EUREC4A. Knowing the cloud-free part, we can investigate the remaining cloud-related contributions consisting of areas detected by common cloud-masking algorithms and undetected areas related to optically thin clouds. We find that the cloud-mask cloud cover underestimates the total cloud cover by 33 %. Aircraft lidar measurements support our findings by showing a high abundance of optically thin clouds during EUREC4A. Mixing the undetected optically thin clouds into the cloud-free signal can cause an underestimation of the cloud radiative effect of up to −7.5 %. We further discuss possible artificial correlations in aerosol–cloud cover interaction studies that might arise from undetected optically thin low clouds. Our analysis suggests that the known underestimation of trade wind cloud cover and simultaneous overestimation of cloud brightness in models are even higher than assumed so far.