03 January 2019

Formation of Tropical Anvil Clouds by Slow Evaporation

Why do anvil clouds exist?

Science

In the tropics, the upper troposphere is cloudier, on average, than either the middle or lower troposphere. The conventional paradigm for these clouds attributes their existence to the rapidly-declining convective mass flux below the tropopause, which implies a large source of detraining cloudy air there. But, is this right?

Impact

Since those high clouds play a large role in Earth's radiation balance, and since their effect on anthropogenic global warming is uncertain, it is essential that we understand why they are there.  This work develops a parameterization of cloud fraction that captures the important physics of cloud decay and faithfully replicates profiles of cloudiness in large-eddy simulations.  This parameterization can be adapted to a global climate model.

Summary

This paper tests the standard paradigm for anvil clouds by manipulating the sources and sinks of cloudy air in cloud-resolving simulations. It is found that anvil clouds form because of the long lifetime of cloud condensates in the upper troposphere, not because of an enhanced source of cloudy air below the tropopause. The reason the cloud lifetimes are so long in the cold upper troposphere is because the saturation specific humidity is much smaller there than the typical condensed water loading of cloud updrafts, which causes evaporative cloud decay to act very slowly. Thus, the reason the tropical upper troposphere is so cloudy is not because clouds preferentially detrain there, but because the upper troposphere is so cold.

Contact
David Romps
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Funding
Programs
  • Climate Model Development and Validation
  • Atmospheric System Research
Publications
Seeley, JT, N Jeevanjee, W Langhans, and DM Romps.  In Press.  "Formation of Tropical Anvil Clouds by Slow Evaporation."  Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1029/2018GL080747.