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Clouds around the world may be falling in response to rising global temperatures and having a cooling effect on global warming, according to analysis of satellite data by Auckland University scientists.
The first 10 years of data from the NASA Terra satellite, which uses nine cameras at different angles to produce a stereo image of the world's clouds, shows their average height has lowered by about 1 per cent, or 30 to 40 metres.
Most of the reduction was due to fewer clouds occurring at very high altitudes, says the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
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"This is the first time we have been able to accurately measure changes in global cloud height and, while the record is too short to be definitive, it provides just a hint that something quite important might be going on," said lead researcher, Professor Roger Davies.
In a "negative feedback mechanism", lower cloud height would allow the Earth to cool to space more efficiently, reducing the surface temperature of the planet and potentially slowing the effects of global warming.
Most of the reduction was due to fewer clouds occurring at very high altitudes
The linear trend is −44 ± 22 m/decade and the interannual annual difference is −31 ± 11 m between the first and last years of the decade.
The question of whether clouds are the cause of surface temperature changes, rather than acting as a feedback in response to those temperature changes, is explored using data obtained between 2000 and 2010.
ScienceDaily (Dec. 9, 2010) — Changes in clouds will amplify the warming of the planet due to human activities, according to a breakthrough study by a Texas A&M University researcher.
Andrew Dessler, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, says that warming due to increases in greenhouse gases will cause clouds to trap more heat, which will lead to additional warming. This process is known as the "cloud feedback" and is predicted to be responsible for a significant portion of the warming over the next century.