Articles | Volume 16, issue 10
Research article
31 May 2016
Research article |  | 31 May 2016

Limitations of passive remote sensing to constrain global cloud condensation nuclei

Philip Stier

Abstract. Aerosol–cloud interactions are considered a key uncertainty in our understanding of climate change (Boucher et al., 2013). Knowledge of the global abundance of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) is fundamental to determine the strength of the anthropogenic climate perturbation. Direct measurements are limited and sample only a very small fraction of the globe so that remote sensing from satellites and ground-based instruments is widely used as a proxy for cloud condensation nuclei (Nakajima et al., 2001; Andreae, 2009; Clarke and Kapustin, 2010; Boucher et al., 2013). However, the underlying assumptions cannot be robustly tested with the small number of measurements available so that no reliable global estimate of cloud condensation nuclei exists. This study overcomes this limitation using a self-consistent global model (ECHAM-HAM) of aerosol radiative properties and cloud condensation nuclei. An analysis of the correlation of simulated aerosol radiative properties and cloud condensation nuclei reveals that common assumptions about their relationships are violated for a significant fraction of the globe: 71 % of the area of the globe shows correlation coefficients between CCN0.2 % at cloud base and aerosol optical depth (AOD) below 0.5, i.e. AOD variability explains only 25 % of the CCN variance. This has significant implications for satellite based studies of aerosol–cloud interactions. The findings also suggest that vertically resolved remote-sensing techniques, such as satellite-based high spectral resolution lidars, have a large potential for global monitoring of cloud condensation nuclei.

Short summary
Cloud droplets form on suitable nuclei from aerosol emissions. Clouds with more droplets have higher reflectance so that aerosol emissions have a cooling climate effect. Numerous publications of these effects rely on passive satellite remote sensing. In this work I use a self consistent global aerosol model to show that a commonly used assumption (passively retrieved aerosol extinction is a suitable proxy for cloud condensation nuclei) is violated for a significant fraction of the Earth.
Final-revised paper