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Climate change could make these super-common clouds extinct, which would scorch the planet

By Rafi Letzter
February 26, 2019, 12:35:40 PM EST


If humanity pumps enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, one of Earth's most important types of cloud could go extinct. And if the stratocumulus clouds — those puffy, low rolls of vapor that blanket much of the planet at any given moment — disappear, Earth's temperature could climb sharply and radically, to heights not predicted in current climate models.

That's the conclusion of a paper published today (Feb. 25) in the journal Nature Geoscience and described in detail by Natalie Wolchover for Quanta Magazine.

clouds

This is a picture of stratocumulus clouds. Credit: Shutterstock


As Wolchover explained, clouds have long been one of the great uncertainties of climate models. Clouds are complicated, small and fast-changing. Computer models that easily capture the complexity and detail of most climate systems just aren't powerful enough to predict worldwide shifts in cloud behavior.

But clouds are important. They dye a wide swath of the atmosphere white, as seen from space, reflecting sunlight away from Earth's surface. And stratocumulus cloudsare an important part of that picture; they're those white blankets you might have seen as you looked out the window of an airplane, rolling out below you and hiding the ground. Researchers suspect that certain sudden, past jumps in temperature may have been caused by changes to clouds like these.

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