Cloudy outlook for albedo?

Guest Commentary by George Tselioudis (NASA GISS)

In the past few years several attempts have been made to assess changes in the Earth’s planetary albedo, and claims of global dimming and more recently brightening have been debated in journal articles and blogs alike. In a recent article entitled “Can the Earth’s Albedo and Surface Temperatures Increase Together,” that appeared in EOS, Enric Palle and co-authors use recently released cloud data from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP) to explain how it is possible for the Earth to be warming even as it’s albedo is increasing. The need for an explanation arises from the author’s claim that the earth’s albedo has increased since the year 2000, an increase that was not followed by a decrease in surface temperature. They base this claim on Earthshine data (a measurement of the glow of the dark side of the moon that they use to deduce the earth’s reflectance) and on an albedo proxy derived from ISCCP parameters after they are regressed with two years of overlapping, but not global, earthshine observations. Subsequently they claim that the rising reflectance of the Earth has not led to a reversal of global warming because the difference between low and middle-plus-high ISCCP clouds has increased in the last four years. This they say implies that as the low-level, cooling clouds have decreased during the most recent years, the high-level, warming clouds have increased even more negating any potential cloud-induced cooling.

There are several issues connected to the use of earthshine data to calculate the earth’s albedo that have been discussed in peer-reviewed publications and that I will not discuss in this posting. I will say a few things, however, about the selective use of ISCCP data in this article to construct qualitative arguments that do not stand up to detailed quantitative analysis .

Palle et al (2006) albedo reconstructionFirst, let’s take the claim that the Earth’s albedo has increased in the last four years. This is based primarily on the huge earthshine-derived albedo increase in 2003, which the authors now admit may be caused by undersampling of the data but was the the highlight of the authors’ recent Science paper (Palle et al, 2004). The other three years have values close to zero (relative to the reference year) with two years having error bars extending into the negative territory. The earthshine-trained ISCCP reconstruction of the albedo is a purely statistical parameter that has little physical meaning as it does not account for the non-linear relations between cloud and surface properties and planetary albedo and does not include aerosol related albedo changes such as associated with Mt. Pinatubo, or human emissions of sulfates for instance. Even this albedo reconstruction, however, shows only a weak positive trend in the last four years.

The ISCCP group produces an independent estimate of the albedo, from performing a full radiative flux calculation that takes into account observations of all radiative forcings and produces top of the atmosphere, surface, and in-atmosphere fluxes (data, figure right). This has been shown to be in excellent quantitative agreement with satellite measurements at the top-of-atmosphere and with surface measurements. The year-to-year variations of these values show some qualitative agreement with the earthshine-trained ISCCP reconstruction but very large quantitative differences.

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