Our protective clouds could vanish

If carbon dioxide levels reach above a certain point, these UV-blocking clouds will be gone.

You know those clouds that you see on pretty summer day that almost look like a blanket? Those are called stratocumulus clouds and according to a study published in Nature Geoscience, these clouds could suddenly start to disappear from our blue skies. To make matters worse, stratocumulus clouds reflect a significant amount of UV rays from our Earth due to their reflective white hue, so losing them would make Earth’s temperatures rise much quicker than predicted. The researchers modelling shows that this could lead to a 8-degree rise on average around the world, which could have a detrimental effect on wildlife, and eventually humans.

These clouds are so important because they provide a long, rolling blanketing layers that cover and protect expansive amounts of our sky. When you look down from a plane or up from large flat land, it appears they go on forever, and they almost do. They reflect more UV than any other clouds because they are flat, unlike the billowing clouds that cover only a slight fraction of Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, according to the study, stratocumulus clouds cover 20% of Earth’s low-latitude oceans. Without the clouds shielding the oceans (which absorb most of the UV rays), Earth’s temperatures will begin to reach alarmingly fatal levels, changing the delicate balance that animals rely on to survive. Such a change in temperatures would have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem, damaging wildlife and the human industries that depend on them. As Live Science explains, clouds are one of the main factors aiding Earth to sustain a balanced climate, and as we load our atmosphere with more and more carbon dioxide, showing no signs of stopping, global warming could speed up more than previously thought.

Image Credit: Nature Geoscience  

The study by Tapio Schneider and three other scientists at Caltech show that if carbon dioxide levels rise above 1200 parts per million (ppm), stratoculumus clouds will lose their shape and start to separate in our skies. According to Natalie Wolchover from Quanta Magazine, we could reach 1200 ppm of carbon dioxide in the next 100 to 150 years if humans don’t reduce their emissions. In addition, Tapio Schneider wrote that the disappearance of these clouds would result in a temperature increase of 8°C globally and 10°C in the subtropics.  This increase is severely alarming, considering that this prediction excludes the deadly effects of global warming. Temperatures haven’t been at such a level for millennia and it would result in desert-like conditions around the Earth’s equator. Wolchover said Earth was almost “lifeless” when temperatures were that high. To add global warming to the picture, World Economic Forum states the global average could rise 2°C by 2030.  Combine that with the disappearance of the clouds and that’s a 10°, more than enough to melt ice and kill off many species reliant on the current climate. The researchers also say that once these clouds disappear, they wouldn’t reappear until carbon dioxide levels drop back below where they are now, and that would take more than a few decades.  

If we lose these clouds, it could result in various very unpleasant circumstances. If temperatures in the subtropics were to rise by 10°C, that would make the average temperature close to 40°C, which is extreme, and this is excluding global warming effects. The rise in global temperature could also result in ice melting in our poles, which also reflect a significant amount of UV rays. Our carbon levels have doubled from 100 years ago and we have already seen some frightening changes, but Tapio Schneider has faith humans will reduce their carbon footprint in the future. “I am pretty — fairly — optimistic,” Schneider told Wolchover as he thinks solar power will be the next big source of energy.

No matter what the outcomes are of losing these clouds, they will be negative and possibly irreversible. If those levels do rise to 1200 ppm and we do lose stratocumulus clouds, the result could be a climate-worsening domino effect in which the last domino to fall, could possibly be civilized life.

Image credit: Gateway to Astronaut Photography

1 comment on “Our protective clouds could vanish

  1. John winston

    This is insane to hear why are more people not talking bout the clouds disappearing


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