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The Role of Small-Scale Cloud, Aerosol, and Radiation Processes for Earth's Climate


Singer, Clare Emilie Elmendorf (2024) The Role of Small-Scale Cloud, Aerosol, and Radiation Processes for Earth's Climate. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/bd4s-w586.


What makes clouds ethereal and beautiful also makes them complex and challenging to understand and to model. The important (thermo)dynamical processes of clouds occur at scales from microns (cloud-aerosol interactions), to meters (turbulence), to thousands of kilometers (synoptic weather patterns), and every scale in between. In this thesis, I explore several facets of how clouds interact with, respond to, and shape Earth's climate. I focus on small-scale processes, using high-resolution models and theory, to understand phenomena that can have large-scale impacts.

In the first three chapters of this thesis, I explore the idea of stratocumulus-cumulus transitions. Chapters 1 and 2 develop and demonstrate a conceptual model of a cloud-topped atmospheric boundary layer, which is rooted in mixed-layer theory. This model is able to concisely explain both the spatial stratocumulus-cumulus transition observed in the historical period, as well as a transition that has only been hypothesized by models, which may occur in the future as the direct effect of extreme concentrations of atmospheric CO2, or which may have occurred in the past. I use this conceptual model to show the importance of sea surface temperature variations for driving the climatological transition, and on sea surface warming as a positive feedback for the CO2-induced transition. Chapter 3 extends this work to understand the global response to CO2-induced stratocumulus-cumulus transitions and the role for spatial teleconnections by embedding this conceptual model of the boundary layer into a global climate model (GCM). In the GCM we see both a fast adjustment in low cloud cover to CO2, as well as a slower surface temperature-mediated feedback. Under CO2 quadrupling, the stratocumulus cloud regions shrink in extent as the cloud-top longwave cooling is inhibited by CO2 and surface temperatures also increase.

The final two chapters diverge from the previous theme to present two studies using very high-resolution models to explore how clouds interact with i) aerosols and ii) radiation. In Chapter 4, using a particle-based cloud microphysics model, I find that aerosol hygroscopicity, determined by the chemical composition of the particles, can alter stratocumulus cloud macrophysical properties, like liquid water path by up to 25% (in the regime of small aerosol sizes). I compare these results to a more standard moment-based microphysics model and find that this model is overly sensitive to aerosol hygroscopicity in the regime of small aerosol sizes, but realistically represents the negative sensitivity for large aerosol sizes. Finally, in Chapter 5, I use a Monte Carlo 3D radiative transfer solver to estimate the global albedo bias introduced in models which make the standard assumption that photon fluxes in the horizontal are zero (the so-called Independent Column Approximation). I extrapolate globally from a set of resolved tropical cloud fields, using a learned empirical relation between top-of-atmosphere flux bias and cloud water path. I conclude that in a global model that resolves clouds at small-enough spatial scales, the tropical-mean, annual-mean bias may be on the order of 3 W m-2.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:cloud feedbacks, aerosol-cloud-interactions, cloud radiative effects
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Environmental Science and Engineering
Awards:Richard H. Jahns Teaching Award, 2021.
Thesis Availability:Restricted to Caltech community only
Research Advisor(s):
  • Schneider, Tapio
Thesis Committee:
  • Wennberg, Paul O. (chair)
  • Schneider, Tapio
  • Callies, Jörn
  • Feingold, Graham
Defense Date:20 July 2023
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05092023-230615398
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for Ch. 5
Singer, Clare Emilie Elmendorf0000-0002-1708-0997
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:15158
Deposited By: Clare Singer
Deposited On:14 Sep 2023 05:27
Last Modified:17 Jun 2024 19:28

Thesis Files

[img] PDF (Redacted thesis. Includes Chapters 0 and 5, and Appendix A.) - Final Version
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[img] PDF (Full thesis) - Final Version
Restricted to Caltech community only until 13 March 2024.
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