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Jost Heintzenberg and Robert J. Charlson. Clouds in the preturbed climate system Jost Heintzenberg and Robert J. Charlson (editors).
Clouds in the preturbed climate system: Their relation to energy balance, atmospheric dynamics, and precipitation.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009.
cloth, 597 p., ISBN 978 0 26201 287 4, $US40.00.
MIT Press:



In 1957, John Mason wrote in the Preface to his classic The Physics of Clouds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957):

“Unfortunately, our present understanding of the large–scale physics of clouds is rudimentary. This is partly because this aspect of the subject has not received the attention it deserves, but mainly because of the difficulty of obtaining observational information about air motions on a scale too large to be simulated in the laboratory and yet too small to be defined by the observational network used in weather forecasting. Because I am convinced that future progress will be largely governed by our improved understanding of cloud dynamics, I hope that the next few years will see a greatly increased effort in this direction.” (p. iv)

We might naively think that with all of the meteorological satellites and stations in place, Mason’s call for more data might have been heeded and indeed a little over 50 years later we now basically “understand” clouds and their role in climate. Unfortunately that is not the case. Theodore L. Anderson and others note in this volume:

“Since several decades may be needed for human–induced trends in cloudiness and radiation flux to rise about natural variability, it is essential that we improve the satellite record as well as sustain and develop further our present observing system. Currently, the available satellite cloud and radiation datasets with lengthly records, sometimes back to around 1980, are generally not useful in analyzing long–term changes that result from the presence of many inhomogeneities and artifacts.” (pp. 137–138)

This volume makes it clear that we need to understand clouds and their effect on the Earth‘s radiation budget quickly. As noted by Joel Norris and the late Tony Slingo (to whom this volume is dedicated), “a 15–20% relative increase in low–level cloud amount is presumed to counteract the radiative forcing caused by a doubling of CO2” (p. 20). But there is not only a need for more data from different and correlated sources as well as better models — as the two dozen papers in this accessible and noteworthy volume certainly demand.

For those working on the science of clouds and their climatological significance, much evidence points to the cumulative climatological effects simply called “global warming.” Those who make policies that will ultimately alter anthropgenic effects need more data and better models too. As Jost Heintzenberg and Robert Charlson note in their Introduction to this volume:

“Just a few decades ago, our fields of science contributed far less to policy making, and we enjoyed the freedom to speculate openly about the physics of clouds and aerosols. Today, however, what we say does count, and a very attentive audience is listening. We must therefore hold ourselves and our findings to an ever–higher standard of scientific proof and be candid about what we have and have not found. Reducing the uncertainly of climate sensitivity requires vast improvements in the ways that clouds and aerosols are understood and described in the models used by decision makers. What is literally at stake is the ability of global society to plan rationally ways to conduct its business.” (p. 13, emphasis mine)

This work is the result of an Ernst Strüngmann Forum held in Frankfurt 2–7 March 2008. The Strüngmann Foundation should be applauded for supporting this important work and MIT Press as well should be congratulated for publishing this large and diverse book, rich in color and other illustrations, making the results of the Forum available quickly. The papers themselves are well written and edited, a formidable task for which the editors should be praised by not only their immediate colleagues but the general public. These papers indeed can be read and understood by almost anyone with an interest in the topic. You certainly do not need a Ph.D. in cloud physics to read and ponder the conclusions of the 24 papers found in this work, realizing the urgency of a much more coordinated effort to understand the Earth‘s radiation budget. Highly recommended. — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Book review of Jost Heintzenberg and Robert J. Charlson’s Clouds in the preturbed climate system: Their relation to energy balance, atmospheric dynamics, and precipitation
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 - 1 June 2009

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