Clouds have many answers to a better understanding of Earth's changing climate

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Who doesn’t love to stare at the sky, gaze at the clouds, and speculate about the upcoming weather? Clustered clouds, a sign of a dry afternoon. Dark clouds, rain nearby. And so on. Clouds could be a key to explaining climates’ instabilities but are not well known by scientists. Read more.

Clouds are formed from a combination of climatic events, such as changes in pressure, temperature, type of terrain, conditions of the urban area, and season.

There are two basic ways of observing the sky to determine the fraction of cloud cover (cloudiness) and its classification by visual inspection. Observers analyze the patterns of moving clouds through satellite or radar imagery to predict more worrisome weather events such as tornadoes, floods, etc. 

An obstacle in radar readings

There are clouds that by reflecting sunlight bar the heat radiation from the surface and affect the radar readings.

Because of this very issue, many analyses are affected and undermine weather forecasts

Clouds do affect the weather, but changes in the weather affect the clouds. 

This ambiguous relationship creates a complicated system of climate feedback that modulates the Earth's radiation and precipitation balance. 

The function of clouds can be summarized in the following list:


  • Clouds cool the Earth's surface by reflecting incoming sunlight.

  • Clouds warm the Earth's surface by absorbing heat emitted from the surface and radiating it back to the surface.

  • Clouds warm or cool the Earth's atmosphere by absorbing heat emitted from the surface and radiating it back out into space.

  • Clouds warm and dry the Earth's atmosphere and supply water to the surface, forming precipitation.

  • Clouds are created by the movements of the atmosphere caused by heating or cooling radiation and water precipitation.

Nonetheless, if climate changes, clouds change too and alter the effects listed above.

That’s why scientists still are not plenty aware of how the process of cloud change develops in the case of increased or decreased water precipitation. 

Knowing about cloud cycles is therefore crucial to better control and monitor climate change on Earth.

For example, some cloud types can determine how the weather will look in the next few hours, but atmospheric dynamics do not allow us to predict with 100% certainty.

Why are clouds so important?

Clouds act as a protective umbrella, cooling the Earth by reflecting sunlight away from the surface. Paradoxically, they can act as an insulating blanket, warming the Earth. 

These two paradoxical effects - umbrella or blanket - depend on the altitude and thickness of the clouds, i.e:

  • The higher the cloud: it prevents heat from escaping into space. 

  • The thicker the cloud: the better it reflects sunlight away from the Earth's surface.

  • High, thin clouds: they let sunlight through, preventing heat from escaping into space as infrared radiation, providing a net warming effect.

  • Low, thick clouds: strongly reflect sunlight, having a low impact on the infrared radiation escaping to space, creating a net cooling effect.

Since the atmosphere contains many more low, thick clouds than high, thin clouds, the umbrella effect predominates. If the other way around, Earth would be much warmer.

Classifying clouds more precisely

One of the first international classifications of clouds was published in 1896. Since then it has become the scientists' handbook, as it is revised periodically.

Currently, 10 types of clouds have been classified (according to their altitude and shape):

  1. High clouds: Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, and Cirrostratus.

  2. Medium clouds: Altocumulus, Altostratus, Nimbostratus.

  3. Low clouds: Stratus, Stratocumulus, Cumulus, Cumulonimbus.

The truth is that both intense cold and extreme heat, regardless of the region or time of year, originate from various factors that may be natural or the fault of human action. 

Global warming is as damaging as global cooling

The climate on Earth has always been unstable

About 4.6 billion years ago, the Earth was extremely hot, so hot that lava covered its surface. Then came the cooling era, which became known as the Ice Age. The situation became balanced over the millennia, but modernity has helped to cause imbalances.

Neither one thing nor the other

If warming beyond the normal range is harmful, cooling would be equally dangerous for the planet's survival.

An intense cooling would solidify the lava in the Earth's core, making it stop flowing and altering the magnetic field. Hence, the solar wind would hit the planet more easily, weakens the atmosphere, and make all life forms impossible.

By the way, who knows that was what happened on the planet Mars?

For Dr. Sandrine Bony, climatologist and director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, "Fortunately, since clouds interact strongly with climate and influence the structure of the atmosphere, affecting everything from temperature, humidity, and even atmospheric circulations, the risk of extreme global warming is remote."


The better we know about the cloud process, the greater the chances of reducing the risk of extreme global warming or cooling. Current technology can be the best tool to offer more realistic models that can enhance the level of accuracy when making weather forecasts. In other words, a new generation of high-resolution climate models will allow more accurate simulation of cloud dynamics around the globe at scales of up to two miles, and future climate projections will be more reliable. As a matter of fact,  not everything is as bad as the fatalists predict.

By Marco Veado - THINK GREEN