Articles | Volume 14, issue 16
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 8599–8610, 2014
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 8599–8610, 2014

Research article 25 Aug 2014

Research article | 25 Aug 2014

On the role of clouds in the fair weather part of the global electric circuit

A. J. G. Baumgaertner1, G. M. Lucas1, J. P. Thayer1, and S. A. Mallios2 A. J. G. Baumgaertner et al.
  • 1Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 2Communications and Space Sciences Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, USA

Abstract. Clouds in the fair weather return path of the global electric circuit (GEC) reduce conductivity because of the limited mobility of charge due to attachment to cloud water droplets, effectively leading to a loss of ions. A high-resolution GEC model, which numerically solves the current continuity equation in combination with Ohm's law, is used to show that return currents partially flow around clouds, with current divergence above the cloud and convergence below the cloud. An analysis of this effect is presented for various types of clouds, i.e., for different altitude extents and for different horizontal dimensions, finding that the effect is most pronounced for high clouds with a diameter below 100 km. Based on these results, a method to calculate column and global resistance is developed that can account for all cloud sizes and altitudes. The CESM1(WACCM) (Community Earth System Model – Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model) as well as ISCCP (International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project) cloud data are used to calculate the effect of this phenomenon on global resistance. From CESM1(WACCM), it is found that when including clouds in the estimate of resistance the global resistance increases by up to 73%, depending on the parameters used. Using ISCCP cloud cover leads to an even larger increase, which is likely to be overestimated because of time averaging of cloud cover. Neglecting current divergence/convergence around small clouds overestimates global resistance by up to 20% whereas the method introduced by previous studies underestimates global resistance by up to 40%. For global GEC models, a~conductivity parameterization is developed to account for the current divergence/convergence phenomenon around clouds. Conductivity simulations from CESM1(WACCM) using this parameterization are presented.

Final-revised paper