Precipitation-generated oscillations in open cellular cloud fields

Abstract

Cloud fields adopt many different patterns that can have a profound effect on the amount of sunlight reflected back to space, with important implications for the Earth’s climate. These cloud patterns can be observed in satellite images of the Earth and often exhibit distinct cell-like structures associated with organized convection at scales of tens of kilometres1,2,3. Recent evidence has shown that atmospheric aerosol particles—through their influence on precipitation formation—help to determine whether cloud fields take on closed (more reflective) or open (less reflective) cellular patterns4,5. The physical mechanisms controlling the formation and evolution of these cells, however, are still poorly understood6, limiting our ability to simulate realistically the effects of clouds on global reflectance. Here we use satellite imagery and numerical models to show how precipitating clouds produce an open cellular cloud pattern that oscillates between different, weakly stable states. The oscillations are a result of precipitation causing downward motion and outflow from clouds that were previously positively buoyant. The evaporating precipitation drives air down to the Earth’s surface, where it diverges and collides with the outflows of neighbouring precipitating cells. These colliding outflows form surface convergence zones and new cloud formation. In turn, the newly formed clouds produce precipitation and new colliding outflow patterns that are displaced from the previous ones. As successive cycles of this kind unfold, convergence zones alternate with divergence zones and new cloud patterns emerge to replace old ones. The result is an oscillating, self-organized system with a characteristic cell size and precipitation frequency.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Cloud albedo calculated from large eddy simulation of closed and open cellular structures.
Figure 2: Updraught and downdraught patterns illustrating surface convergence and divergence zones in open cells.
Figure 3: A simple two-dimensional model of Rayleigh–Bénard convection and oscillating Rayleigh–Bénard convection.
Figure 4: Oscillations in precipitation rate.

References

  1. 1

    Krueger, A. F. & Fritz, S. Cellular cloud patterns revealed by TIROS I. Tellus 13, 1–7 (1961)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Agee, E. M. Observations from space and thermal convection: a historical perspective. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 65, 938–949 (1984)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Garay, M. J., Davies, R., Averill, C. & Westphal, J. A. Actinoform clouds: overlooked examples of cloud self-organization at the mesoscale. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 85, 1585–1594 (2004)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Stevens, B. et al. Pockets of open cells and drizzle in marine stratocumulus. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 86, 51–57 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Sharon, T. M. et al. Aerosol and cloud microphysical characteristics of rifts and gradients in maritime stratocumulus clouds. J. Atmos. Sci. 63, 983–997 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Wood, R. et al. Open cellular structure in marine stratocumulus sheets. J. Geophys. Res. 113 10.1029/2007JD009371 (2008)

  7. 7

    Rayleigh, L. On convection currents in a horizontal layer of fluid, when the higher temperature is on the under side. Phil. Mag. 32, 529–546 (1916)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Twomey, S. The influence of pollution on the shortwave albedo of clouds. J. Atmos. Sci. 34, 1149–1152 (1977)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Atkinson, B. W. & Zhang, J.-W. Mesoscale shallow convection in the atmosphere. Rev. Geophys. 34, 403–431 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Krishnamurti, R. On cellular cloud patterns—Part 1: Mathematical model. J. Atmos. Sci. 32, 1353–1363 (1975)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Getling, A. V. Rayleigh-Bénard Convection: Structures and Dynamics. In Advanced Series in Nonlinear Dynamics Vol. 11 (World Scientific, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Graham, A. Shear patterns in an unstable layer of air. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A232, 285–296 (1933)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Helfand, M. & Kalnay, E. A mechanism for open or closed cellular convection. J. Atmos. Sci. 40, 631–650 (1983)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Rosenfeld, D., Kaufman, Y. J. & Koren, I. Switching cloud cover and dynamical regimes from open to closed Benard cells in response to the suppression of precipitation by aerosols. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 6, 2503–2511 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Savic-Jovcic, V. & Stevens, B. The structure and mesoscale organization of precipitating stratocumulus. J. Atmos. Sci. 65, 1587–1605 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Xue, H., Feingold, G. & Stevens, B. Aerosol effects on clouds, precipitation, and the organization of shallow cumulus convection. J. Atmos. Sci. 65, 392–406 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Wang, H. & Feingold, G. Modeling mesoscale cellular structures and drizzle in marine stratocumulus. Part I: Impact of drizzle on the formation and evolution of open cells. J. Atmos. Sci. 66, 3237–3256 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Baker, M. & Charlson, R. J. Bistability of CCN concentrations and thermodynamics in the cloud-topped boundary layer. Nature 345, 142–145 (1990)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Willis, G. E. & Deardorff, J. W. Laboratory observations of turbulent penetrative-convection planforms. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 295–302 (1979)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Strogatz, S. H. Exploring complex networks. Nature 410, 268–276 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Arenas, A. et al. Synchronization in complex networks. Phys. Rep. 469, 93–153 (2008)

    ADS  MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Yair, Y., Aviv, R. & Ravid, G. Clustering and synchronization of lightning flashes in adjacent thunderstorm cells from lightning location networks data. J. Geophys. Res. 114 D09210 10.1029/2008JD010738 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Wood, R. et al. Preliminary confrontation of the VOCALS hypotheses with observations and modeling. CLIVAR 7, 5–9 (2009)

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Guo, Z., Shi, B. & Zheng, C. A coupled lattice BGK model for the Boussinesq equations. Int. J. Numer. Methods Fluids 39, 325–342 (2002)

    ADS  MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Parodi, A., Emmanuel, K. A. & Provenzale, A. Plume patterns in radiative convective flow. New J. Phys. 5, 106.1–106.17 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Heylighen, F. The science of self-organization and adaptivity. In Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Wang, H. & Feingold, G. Modeling mesoscale cellular structures and drizzle in marine stratocumulus. Part II: The microphysics and dynamics of the boundary region between open and closed cells. J. Atmos. Sci. 66, 3257–3275 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Barabási, A.-L. & Albert, R. Emergence of scaling in random networks. Science 286, 509–512 (1999)

    ADS  MathSciNet  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Albrecht, B. A. Aerosols, cloud microphysics and fractional cloudiness. Science 245, 1227–1230 (1989)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Wang, H., Feingold, G., Wood, R. & Kazil, J. Modelling microphysical and meteorological controls on precipitation and cloud cellular structures in southeast Pacific stratocumulus. Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 10, 6347–6362 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank NOAA’s Climate Goal Program, a CIRES Visiting Fellowship (I.K.) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (H.W.) for supporting this work. We acknowledge the www.LBMethod.org project for sharing the Lattice Boltzmann Method theory and code, and S. C. Tucker and S. E. Yuter for their support in acquiring the lidar and radar data during the VOCALS-REx field experiment. C. A. Ennis provided editorial assistance and D. Fisher helped with the figures.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

The principal idea was conceived jointly by G.F. and I.K. The large eddy simulations were designed and performed by H.W., H. X. and G.F. I.K. performed the two-dimensional model simulations and the satellite image analysis. W.A.B. performed the analysis of the lidar data. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Graham Feingold.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Information comprising: Large Eddy Simulation; Animation of evolving open cellular structure; Animation of coupled oscillator; MSG SEVIRI satellite imagery; Lidar and radar data; Rayleigh-Bénard oscillations resulting from buoyancy reversals using a 2-D model, Legends for Supplementary Movies 1-3, Supplementary Figure S3 with legend and References. (PDF 849 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1 - Supplementary Figure 1

This movie contains an animation of open cellular structures in Fig. 2 (for full legend see Figure 1 in Supplementary Information file page 8). (GIF 2676 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2 - Supplementary Figure

This movie contains an animation of the coupled oscillator (for full legend see Figure 2 in Supplementary Information file page 8). (MOV 17777 kb)

Supplementary Movie 3 - Supplementary Figure 4

This movie shows satellite imagery of oscillating open cells with animation of images at 30 min intervals (for full legend see Figure 4 in Supplementary Information file page 8). (MOV 6614 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Feingold, G., Koren, I., Wang, H. et al. Precipitation-generated oscillations in open cellular cloud fields. Nature 466, 849–852 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09314

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.