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Scientists Want to Solve Puzzle of Excess Water Vapor Near Cirrus Clouds

Science News
Photo: Cirrus Clouds

Dec 01, 2006
A number of researchers in recent years have reported perplexing findings of water vapor at concentrations as much as twice what they should be in and around cirrus clouds high in the atmosphere, a finding that could alter some conclusions about climate change.

Now a group of European and U.S. scientists is advocating a broad research effort to solve the puzzle and understand just what is occurring in cirrus clouds, wispy sheets of ice crystals 6 to 10 miles above the Earth's surface. "Based on our current knowledge, it shouldn't exist," said Marcia Baker, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences. She is one of six climate researchers who authored a Perspectives article in the Nov. 30 edition of the journal Science promoting an extensive effort to investigate the dilemma.

Clouds and particles in the atmosphere play a significant role in regulating the Earth's temperature because they help determine how much of the sun's heat and energy is reflected back into space and they trap outgoing radiation from the Earth's surface. Cirrus clouds also are important in regulating the distribution of water vapor, the most important greenhouse gas, in the upper troposphere. "We have thought our models of the formation and evolution of cirrus clouds are generally adequate in how they portray the role of cirrus clouds in regulating water vapor, but if the recent findings are accurate and high humidities are widespread, our assumptions could need significant adjustment," Baker said. "The point is to bring this to the more general science audience as a broad puzzle, but also to lay the groundwork for research to solve the puzzle," she said.

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