Cloud Spelunking

Back when global exploration meant finding a place, discovery was fairly straightforward. A given group of people could send some intrepid souls in a direction where none of them had ever been before, be it a valley, a sea, an island or a continent, and then that new place was ‘discovered’. There were gaps between the discovered places, but after a while, most of the gaps were closed and we now have a pretty good idea of where most places are on the surface of our planet.

Exploration has gotten a bit more slippery since then, and filling the gaps can be an elusive undertaking.

Alps in morning cloud, New Year's Day 2014 Photo: PK Read

Alps in morning cloud, New Year’s Day 2014
Photo: PK Read

In the investigation of ongoing climate change, unexplored territory remains. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual fall meeting in December, three scientists who contributed to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report (released in September 2013) outlined three areas that need more intrepid spelunking if the climate change process and its impacts are to be understood.

One misty area is the full functionality of the carbon cycle, or how carbon makes its way between the soils, the plants, water bodies and the air.

Another is how the oceans themselves work at deeper levels. Specifically, how they absorb the increasing heat of the atmosphere.

But, as a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I am particularly keen to follow the research on the role played by clouds when it comes to climate change. How do airborne particles affect clouds? Also, apparently low level cloud cover is migrating to the north and south. What overall effect this will have is currently a foggy area on the map of knowledge.

Mont Blanc, New Year's Day 2014. Photo: PK REad

Mont Blanc, New Year’s Day 2014.
The Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva is visible in the lower right corner.
Photo: PK Read

In my corner of the planet, ephemeral clouds and solid mountains share the skyline. Just because the clouds obscure parts of the jagged outline on some days doesn’t mean the mountain has moved or shifted shape. And, contrary to what climate change deniers might insist, just because we can’t see all the gears and workings of climate change yet doesn’t mean we never will.

It’s commendable that these scientists are exposing gaps in knowledge so that we can send forth more explorers, and reveal the general location of the obscured territories in our understanding of climate change.