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Climate Model Problems: VII. Clouds and Precipitation
Volume 11, Number 20: 14 May 2008

In a paper published in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Zhou et al. (2007) state that "clouds and precipitation play key roles in linking the earth's energy cycle and water cycles," noting that "the sensitivity of deep convective cloud systems and their associated precipitation efficiency in response to climate change are key factors in predicting the future climate." They also report that cloud resolving models or CRMs "have become one of the primary tools to develop the physical parameterizations of moist and other subgrid-scale processes in global circulation and climate models," and that CRMs could someday be used in place of traditional cloud parameterizations in such models.

In this regard, the authors note that "CRMs still need parameterizations on scales smaller than their grid resolutions and have many known and unknown deficiencies." To help stimulate progress in these areas, therefore, the nine scientists compared the cloud and precipitation properties observed from the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) instruments against simulations obtained from the three-dimensional Goddard Cumulus Ensemble (GCE) model during the South China Sea Monsoon Experiment (SCSMEX) field campaign of 18 May-18 June 1998.

So what did the researchers learn from these efforts?

Zhou et al. report that: (1) "the GCE rainfall spectrum includes a greater proportion of heavy rains than PR (Precipitation Radar) or TMI (TRMM Microwave Imager) observations," (2) "the GCE model produces excessive condensed water loading in the column, especially the amount of graupel as indicated by both TMI and PR observations," (3) "the model also cannot simulate the bright band and the sharp decrease of radar reflectivity above the freezing level in stratiform rain as seen from PR," (4) "the model has much higher domain-averaged OLR (outgoing longwave radiation) due to smaller total cloud fraction," (5) "the model has a more skewed distribution of OLR and effective cloud top than CERES observations, indicating that the model's cloud field is insufficient in area extent," (6) "the GCE is ... not very efficient in stratiform rain conditions because of the large amounts of slowly falling snow and graupel that are simulated," and finally, in summation, that (7) "large differences between model and observations exist in the rain spectrum and the vertical hydrometeor profiles that contribute to the associated cloud field."

In light of these several significant findings, it is clear that CRMs still have a long way to go before they are ready for "prime time" in the complex quest to properly assess the roles of various types of clouds and forms of precipitation in the future evolution of earth's climate in response to variations in numerous anthropogenic and background forcings. This evaluation is not meant to denigrate the CRMs in any way; it is merely done to indicate that the climate modeling enterprise is not yet at the stage where implicit faith should be placed in what it currently suggests about earth's climatic response to the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Zhou, Y.P., Tao, W.-K., Hou, A.Y., Olson, W.S., Shie, C.-L., Lau, K.-M., Chou, M.-D., Lin, X. and Grecu, M. 2007. Use of high-resolution satellite observations to evaluate cloud and precipitation statistics from cloud-resolving model simulations. Part I: South China Sea monsoon experiment. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences 64: 4309-4329.