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60-Second Earth

The Complex Physics of Clouds

How well do scientists understand clouds?

"I wandered lonely as a cloud" o'er fields of scientific inquiry, with nary a precise understanding, of all my complex processes. Or words to that effect (apologies to Wordsworth).  

You might forgive atmospheric scientists for having their heads in the clouds. After all, seemingly simple, fluffy clouds actually involve a complex interplay of fluid dynamics, turbulence, convection and mixing that changes depending on whether one looks at larger or smaller scales.  

Perhaps that's why scientific understanding of clouds has not advanced as much as might be expected. As geophysicists point out in the February 18 issue of Science, we still cannot definitively answer questions posed more than 50 years ago in a similar essay on cloud physics.  

These issues are more important than just developing a better understanding of precipitation. That's because inconstant, perplexing clouds play a major role in climate change, both trapping heat and reflecting sunlight.  

Fortunately, new lab facilities dedicated to the study of clouds will soon wrest that field from poets, the geophysicists argue. And perhaps refine our understanding of whether a cloudy day is indeed, as Shelley called it, " sunbeam-proof."

—David Biello

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