On the origin of subvisible cirrus clouds in the tropical upper troposphere
Abstract. Spaceborne lidar observations have recently revealed a previously undetected significant population of Subvisible Cirrus (SVC). We show them to be colder than −74 °, with an optical depth below 0.0015 on average. The formation and persistence over time of this new cloud population could be related to several atmospheric phenomena. In this paper, we investigate if these clouds follow the same formation mechanisms as the general tropical cirrus population (including convection and in-situ ice nucleation), or if specific nucleation sites and trace species play a role in their formation. The importance of three scenarios in the formation of the global SVC population is investigated through different approaches that include comparisons with data imaging from several spaceborne instruments and back-trajectories that document the history and behavior of air masses leading to the point in time and space where subvisible cirrus were detected. In order to simplify the study of their formation, we singled out SVC with coherent temperature histories (mean variance lower than 4 K) according to back-trajectories along 5, 10 or 15 days (respectively 58, 25 and 11% of SVC). Our results suggest that external processes, including local increases in liquid and hygroscopic aerosol concentration (either through biomass burning or volcanic injection forming sulfate-based aerosols in the troposphere or the stratosphere) have very limited short-term or mid-term impact on the SVC population. On the other hand, we find that ~20% of air masses leading to SVC formation interacted with convective activity 5 days before they led to cloud formation and detection, a number that climbs to 60% over 15 days. SVC formation appears especially linked to convection over Africa and Central America, more so during JJA than DJF. These results support the view that the SVC population observed by CALIOP is an extension of the general upper tropospheric ice clouds population with its extreme thinness as its only differentiating factor.