Articles | Volume 12, issue 1
Research article
03 Jan 2012
Research article |  | 03 Jan 2012

Direct and semi-direct radiative forcing of smoke aerosols over clouds

E. M. Wilcox

Abstract. Observations from Earth observing satellites indicate that dark carbonaceous aerosols that absorb solar radiation are widespread in the tropics and subtropics. When these aerosols mix with clouds, there is generally a reduction of cloudiness owing to absorption of solar energy in the aerosol layer. Over the subtropical South Atlantic Ocean, where smoke from savannah burning in southern Africa resides above a persistent deck of marine stratocumulus clouds, radiative heating of the smoke layer leads to a thickening of the cloud layer. Here, satellite observations of the albedo of overcast scenes of 25 km2 size or larger are combined with additional satellite observations of clouds and aerosols to estimate the top-of-atmosphere direct radiative forcing attributable to presence of dark aerosol above bright cloud, and the negative semi-direct forcing attributable to the thickening of the cloud layer. The average positive direct radiative forcing by smoke over an overcast scene is 9.2±6.6 W m−2 for cases with an unambiguous signal of absorbing aerosol over cloud in passive ultraviolet remote sensing observations. However, cloud liquid water path is enhanced by 16.3±7.7 g m−2 across the range of values for sea surface temperature for cases of smoke over cloud. The negative radiative forcing associated with this semi-direct effect of smoke over clouds is estimated to be −5.9±3.5 W m−2. Therefore, the cooling associated with the semi-direct cloud thickening effect compensates for greater than 60 % of the direct radiative effect. Accounting for the frequency of occurrence of significant absorbing aerosol above overcast scenes leads to an estimate of the average direct forcing of 1.0±0.7 W m−2 contributed by these scenes averaged over the subtropical southeast Atlantic Ocean during austral winter. The regional average of the negative semi-direct forcing is −0.7±0.4 W m−2. Therefore, smoke aerosols overlaying the decks of overcast marine stratocumulus clouds considered here yield a small net positive radiative forcing, which results from the difference of two larger effects.

Final-revised paper