Head in the clouds

For centuries, clouds have fascinated artists, poets and scientists. However, recent studies show that while clouds may be eternal, rapid environmental changes may well be impacting them as well.


The phenomena came under scrutiny at a recent TU Delft Climate Institute Symposium titled Do Clouds Change in a Warming Climate. The event, held at the Architecture Faculty earlier this month, brought experts from different fields together to discuss this topic.

The session hoped to address several issues included the possible consequences of global warming on changes in cloud patterns, whether cloudiness mitigates or amplifies global climate change. Of particular interest to the audience was the question of whether we can expect even more rain the Netherlands in the coming years. Sadly, clouds are so ephemeral that it’s apparently difficult to accurately predict that. In fact, most speakers acknowledged that the study of clouds is complicated not only by their physical form but also by their multi-pronged purpose in the environment.

Prof. Herman Russchenberg, the first speaker, started on a light note. “I wonder why every child draws blue clouds. Have you ever seen a blue cloud?” he asked the audience. Talking about clouds and radiation, Russchenberg pointed out the diverse role of clouds including cooling, warming, evaporation and condensation. Add to that the large varieties of clouds and the need for global data and the problem is aggravated. One of Russchenberg’s suggestions is a forum where scientists can share data globally.

One such initiative is the Caesar Observatory, an observatory at a polder in Western Netherlands which studies the atmosphere and its interaction with the land surface. Russchenberg explained that Caesar is a focal point of experimental atmospheric research in the Netherlands, with three universities, including TU Delft, and five major research institutes collaborating.

While Prof. Pier Siebesma spoke about the effect of global warming on global precipitation, Dr. Reinout Boers spoke about observed changes in cloudiness. An interesting speaker, Boers entertained the crowd with his comparison between a human observer of clouds and a machine. “One has a bad back, is myopic and has no social life,” he said. Boers pointed out that data collection on clouds is very recent in human history, so it is always harder to gauge change.

Prof. Harm Jonker, who spoke about the use of computers in studying clouds, kicked off his talk by joking about how the term “Cloud Computing” has been hijacked by the Internet.

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