Climatologists consider the role of clouds to be the largest single uncertainty in climate prediction. In fact, the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, charged with evaluating climate change science, has made it a top priority.
Earlier this month, the Fulbright Scholarship awarded Northland College Visiting Professor Andrew Jensen a grant to research climate change, aerosols, and clouds.
The Fulbright is a competitive funding source for the international exchange of scientists and other disciplines for collaborative research or teaching.
Jensen will focus on research, conducting mathematical modeling in France at the Atmospheric Optics Laboratory at the University of Lille in Villeneuve d’Ascq from January 2017 through April.
“I’m going to be researching what’s called, ‘the aerosol indirect effect,’” said Jensen, who will be collaborating with Olivier Pujol, a specialist in cloud physics.
Aerosols are tiny particles in suspension in the atmosphere that occur naturally from desert dust, sea salt, or from humans—oil and burning coal, Jensen said.
Aerosols can influence climate by scattering light and changing Earth’s reflectivity and can also alter the climate via clouds—an indirect effect.
“Cloud droplets are formed by water vapor particles nucleating on certain aerosols,” Jensen said. “Without aerosols there would be far fewer clouds, if any at all.”
Since clouds depend on aerosols for their existence, aerosols also effect precipitation indirectly, as well as the amount of energy the Earth’s surface receives from the sun.
Overall, clouds cool the Earth’s surface by shading about sixty percent of the planet at any one time and by increasing the reflectivity of the atmosphere. Given that, just a five percent increase or decrease in cloud reflectivity could have a huge impact.
Jensen will leave for France in January though he’s already working on the mathematical modeling. And still absorbing the news. “I didn’t expect the Fulbright because it’s terribly competitive,” he said. “I’m ready to help develop advance techniques that haven’t been used before in planning for and understanding the impact of climate change on clouds and vice versa.”