Clouds, Cloud Formation, Climate, and the Precautionary Principle

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale. –William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2

“Clouds were there for everyone—no tax as yet on them—free” –Alfred Stieglitz

I thought, in my perambulations through the biosphere, I’d move on from earth and water to the atmosphere, though why I settled on clouds, I don’t know (possibly this). Or perhaps I had aerosols on my mind. Typically, I begin with images showing the beauty of the subject, which in this case is not hard. From Alfred Stiglitz’s series, Equivalents, this:

Or this:

Stiglitz was not the first to point his camera at the sky, but he seems to have been the first to make clouds his subject. He thought “his depictions of clouds represented his emotions,” but I say he was just projecting, like Hamlet, and the photographs are none the worse for that.

Be that as it may, clouds are almost infinitely various, which Stiglitz knew, and which the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) points out in its Cloud Atlas[1]:

Clouds continuously evolve and appear in an infinite variety of forms. However, there is a limited number of characteristic forms frequently observed all over the world, into which clouds can be broadly grouped in a classification scheme. The scheme uses genera, species and varieties. This is similar to the systems used in the classification of plants or animals, and similarly uses Latin names.

To these characteristic forms we now turn.

Clouds, the Basics

For completeness, let’s define clouds. From the WMO:

A cloud is a hydrometeor* consisting of minute particles of liquid water or ice, or of both, suspended in the atmosphere and usually not touching the ground. It may also include larger particles of liquid water or ice, as well as non-aqueous liquid or solid particles such as those present in fumes, smoke or dust.

NOTE * “Hydrometeors consist of liquid or solid water particles. They may be suspended in the atmosphere, fall through the atmosphere, be blown by the wind from the Earth’s surface or be deposited on other objects. Snow or water on the ground is, by convention, not considered a hydrometeor.” “Meteor,” says my OED, is “Any atmospheric phenomenon. Now techn[ical]”

However, I must say I prefer NOAA’s:

A visible aggregate of minute water droplets or ice particles in the atmosphere above the Earth’s surface.

Because if clouds were not visible, Steiglitz could not have photographed them! And why are they visible? NASA:

A cloud is a mass of water drops or ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Clouds form when water condenses in the sky. The condensation lets us see the water vapor.

(We’ll get to condensation later.)

As WMO says, despite their infinite variabilty, clouds can be classified into genera, species and varieties. Of the genera, there are ten. Here is a chart (which spells out the cloud names, unlike the WMO equivalent):

Here is WMO’s logic diagram for classifiying clouds into genetra:

(So now, when you are out on your daily walk, you can look up at the sky and classify the clouds!)

Now, beyond genera, when you get into species, varieties, supplementary features, varieties, accessory clouds, mother-clouds, and special clouds, the complexity overwhelms; here is a table.

Picking up on NASA’s definition, let’s look at how clouds form.

How Clouds Form

Turning once again to NASA, “How Do Clouds Form?”:

Clouds form from water in the sky. The water may evaporate from the ground or move from other areas. Water vapor is always in the sky in some amount but is invisible. Clouds form when an area of air becomes cooler until the water vapor there condenses to liquid form. At that point, the air is said to be “saturated” with water vapor. The air where the cloud forms must be cool enough for the water vapor to condense. The water will condense around things like dust, ice or sea salt – all known as condensation nuclei. The temperature, wind and other conditions where a cloud forms determine what type of cloud it will be.

More on condensation nuclei from the National Weather Service[2]:

[W]ater molecules in the atmosphere are too small to bond together for the formation of cloud droplets. They need a “flatter” surface, an object with a radius of at least one micrometer (one millionth of a meter) on which they can form a bond. Those objects are called nuclei.

Nuclei are minute solid and liquid particles found in abundance. They consist of such things as smoke particles from fires or volcanoes, ocean spray or tiny specks of wind-blown soil. These nuclei are hygroscopic meaning they attract water molecules.

Called “cloud condensation nuclei”, these water-molecule-attracting particles are about 1/100th the size of a cloud droplet upon which water condenses.

Therefore, every cloud droplet has a speck of dirt, dust or salt crystal at its core. But, even with a condensation nuclei, the cloud droplet is essentially made up of pure water.

A cursory search on the sources of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) yields research on sea algae, algae-killing viruses, phytoplankton, sea spray, bacteria, pollen, fires, ultrafine particles over the Amazon, dust from droughts, and human pollution tracks (e.g., plumes). I’m sure there are many, many more (one thinks of PM2.5 particles in large cities). Note the variety. From Nature:

Cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) provide the sites on which droplets form, resulting in clouds with radiative properties determined in part by CCN abundance and characteristics.

And from the Journal of Applied Meteorology:

Cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) at cloud base strongly affect the droplet concentration at cloud base, which in turn influences the life history of a cloud.

So, if you don’t understand CCNs, you don’t understand clouds. You can, of course, have proxies for understanding (parameters), and you can use those in models.

Clouds and Climate Modeling

From the American Meterological Society, way back in 2005, “Cloud Feedbacks in the Climate System: A Critical Review“:

The blueprint for progress must follow a more arduous path that requires a carefully orchestrated and systematic combination of model and observations. Models provide the tool for diagnosing processes and quantifying feedbacks while observations provide the essential test of the model’s credibility in representing these processes. …[T]he weak link in the use of these models lies in the cloud parameterization imbedded in them. Aspects of these parameterizations remain worrisome, containing levels of empiricism and assumptions that are hard to evaluate with current global observations. Clearly observationally based methods for evaluating cloud parameterizations are an important element in the road map to progress…. The blueprint for progress must follow a more arduous path that requires a carefully orchestrated and systematic combination of model and observations

I don’t have an objection to science progressing by putting the right foot (observation) in front of the left foot (modeling) over and over again, and so walking forward. I do have trouble with “trust the science” (or scientists) absent critical thinking, as a class-driven dogma.) What is “parameterization” and why is it a problem? From Nature, fifteen years later (!):

However, cloud data sets derived from multiple satellites over several decades suffer from spurious artefacts related to changes in satellite orbit, instrument calibration and other factors. These artefacts are particularly large when estimating globally averaged cloud cover, currently preventing any reliable estimation of trends in one direction or the other.

In lieu of observational evidence, we must turn to computational models of the climate system. But there is a problem. Clouds are on too small a scale to be represented using the laws of physics in current climate models. Instead, they are represented by relatively crude, computationally cheap bulk formulae known as parameterizations. These do encode some basic ideas of cloud physics — clouds’ dependence on the ambient temperature, humidity and vertical air velocity, for example — but they are far from being ab initio estimates. Hence, the role of clouds in climate change is crucial but uncertain

I would urge that if we are to combine a systems approach with observation, our models must incorporate cloud formation; that is, must incorporate CCN from — let me get the list — sea algae, algae-killing viruses, phytoplankton, sea spray, bacteria, pollen, fires, ultrafine particles over the Amazon, dust from droughts, and human pollution tracks. Among many others. This is difficult to do. From 2004, “Impact on modeled cloud characteristics due to simplified treatment of uniform cloud condensation nuclei during NEAQS 2004“:

Clouds are one of the most difficult physical phenomena for atmospheric models to reproduce…. Accurately reproducing the impact of clouds in atmospheric models requires a reasonable representation of CCN. … It is potentially possible to tune a fully prescribed CCN distribution to yield accurate longterm means, but day-to-day results will have errors that are likely to impact regional energy budgets and whose frequency could change in altered climate scenarios. This suggests that [Global Climate Models] which simulate vertical and temporal fluctuations in CCN distributions are likely to be much more accurate and better able to capture regional cloud variations. The cost of simulating fully interactive aerosols is substantial

So instead of working from CCN observation, we have worked from parameterization (“tune a fully prescribed CCN distribution”) instead. Even in 2020. From Geophysical Research Letters, “Anthropogenic Effects on Cloud Condensation Nuclei Distribution and Rain Initiation in East Asia:”

More CCN will lead the smaller the drops and the greater the liquid water content, the greater the cloud albedo, but their influence on cloud growth and on precipitation formation is still unclear.

And also from 2020, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, “Cloud condensation nuclei characteristics during the Indian summer monsoon over a rain-shadow region“:

[Atmospheric particles (APs)] which act as the cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) at a specific supersaturation (SS) can indirectly affect the climate by altering the cloud microphysical properties…. In the real atmosphere, the SS measurements are seldom possible, and the large disagreements between the CCN and cloud droplet number concentration remain elusive (Moore et al., 2013). All these effects eventually modify the precipitation pattern (Lohmann and Feichter, 2005; Rosenfeld et al., 2008). Some of these aerosol indirect effects are moderately understood, while others are not, which contribute to significant uncertainty among all the climate forcing mechanisms (IPCC, 2013).

All this said, a combination of tweaking the parameters and incorporating observational studies has finally reached a point where clouds, to mix a metaphor, have upset the climate science applecart. From Yale Environment 360, “Why Clouds Are the Key to New Troubling Projections on Warming“:

It is is the most worrying development in the science of climate change for a long time. An apparently settled conclusion about how sensitive the climate is to adding more greenhouse gases has been thrown into doubt by a series of new studies from the world’s top climate modeling groups.

Last month, American and British researchers, led by Zelinka, reported that 10 of 27 models they had surveyed now reckoned warming from doubling CO2 could exceed 4.5 degrees C, with some showing results up to 5.6 degrees. The average warming projected by the suite of models was 3.9 degrees C (7 degrees F), a 30-percent increase on the old IPCC consensus.

Zelinka said the new estimates of higher climate sensitivity were primarily due to changes made to how the models handled cloud dynamics…..

Modelers have also changed how they characterize the effect of anthropogenic aerosols from burning fuel, particularly in clouds.

Anthropogenic aerosols are CCNs. So cloud formation is key.

And the Guardian:

The role of clouds is one of the most uncertain areas in climate science because they are hard to measure and, depending on altitude, droplet temperature and other factors, can play either a warming or a cooling role. For decades, this has been the focus of fierce academic disputes.

Previous IPCC reports tended to assume that clouds would have a neutral impact because the warming and cooling feedbacks would cancel each other out. But in the past year and a half, a body of evidence has been growing showing that the net effect will be warming. This is based on finer resolution computer models and advanced cloud microphysics.

“Finer resolution” means more accurate parameterization. Cloud formation is one aspect of “advanced cloud microphysics.” Scientific American has a reasonably balanced summary of the state of play:

Clouds are notoriously difficult to simulate in climate models. In the first place, cloud formation is a highly complex phenomenon with a lot of small, moving parts.

Tiny particles in the air [CCNs], called aerosols, have a huge influence on how quickly clouds form, how big they get, what type of clouds they turn out to be and how long they last in the atmosphere. That‘s on top of all the other weather-related factors that affect cloud formation, including air temperature, humidity and wind conditions.Simulating these complicated physics takes a lot of computing power and requires models to operate at a very fine scale. That‘s hard enough. But it‘s extraordinarily difficult to do in global climate models, which are designed to simulate grand-scale climate processes across the entire world.

To compromise, climate models often contain simplified, built-in information about clouds and the way they form—a kind of shortcut that allows clouds to appear without requiring the models to actually recreate all the small-scale physical processes that influence their formation.

As scientists learn more about clouds and cloud physics, they‘ve been able to gradually improve the way clouds are represented in their models. That‘s important because clouds can have a huge effect on the climate system.

Many of the new climate models have made significant advancements in the way they represent clouds and aerosols. They might better depict the amount of liquid water versus the amount of ice that certain clouds contain. Or they might more accurately represent the way certain kinds of aerosols influence cloud formation.

It‘s possible that in some cases these feedbacks are a little too strong. The clouds themselves might be more accurate, but the way they interact with the bigger climate system might still need to be tweaked. Scientists are debating whether that‘s the case and how realistic the increased sensitivity really is.

Meanwhile, if your view of “science” is that it’s entirely based on observation — or that it does not involve debate — it will be problematic for you that our climate scientists have not been able to give a systemic account of cloud formation and its impact; we are still parameterizing, though it does seem we are parameterizing better. (Perhaps we should be putting quantum computers to work on this, when we have them up and running, instead of devoting all that power to, say, marketing or financial speculation).

Does this matter?

The Precautionary Principle

Nicholas Nassim Taleb would argue no. From Joseph Norman, Rupert Read, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Climate models and precautionary measures, Issues in Science and Technology (Summer 2015):

The policy debate with respect to anthropogenic climate-change typically revolves around the accuracy of models. Those who contend that models make accurate predictions argue for specific policies to stem the foreseen damaging effects; those who doubt their accuracy cite a lack of reliable evidence of harm to warrant policy action.

These two alternatives are not exhaustive. One can sidestep the “skepticism” of those who question existing climate-models, by framing risk in the most straightforward possible terms, at the global scale. That is, we should ask “what would the correct policy be if we had no reliable models?”

We have only one planet. This fact radically constrains the kinds of risks that are appropriate to take at a large scale. Even a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us – there is no reversing mistakes of that magnitude.

Without any precise models, we can still reason that polluting or altering our environment significantly could put us in uncharted territory, with no statistical track-record and potentially large consequences. It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large. And it is standard textbook decision theory that a policy should depend at least as much on uncertainty concerning the adverse consequences as it does on the known effects.

I am with Taleb.


[1] No, not that Cloud Atlas, a movie I really enjoyed — ” I will not be subjected to criminal abuse” — when I saw it on a long-haul flight.

[2] Shout out to the National Weather Service for encouraging citizen science:

[3] It may be, of course, that my Covid thoughts are bleeding into my cloud thoughts; I think a lot about particles floating in the air. However, several articles refer to CCNs, in the aggregate, as aerosols. So there you are. Of course, fluid dynamics are notoriously expensive, computationally….

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Halcyon (formerly AnonyMouse)

    My god, something I can actually weigh in on with some level of knowledge.

    Clouds have *long, long* been perhaps the major source of uncertainty in the climate sensitivity (i.e. the climate’s likely response to anthropogenic sources of CO2), with various models and mechanisms proposed as to how their response could help bake us or mitigate the effects of CO2.

    The consensus is now shifting towards an ECS that is “towards the higher end of projections, but not quite as bad as the newest generation of models, which are running a little hot, would make out.” IPCC once said 1.5C-4.5C per doubling of atmospheric CO2 as a likely range; we’re now looking at 2.6-4.1C as a likely range.

    The irony here is that this revised range for ECS basically shifts the carbon budget for a decent shot at 1.5C towards the lower end of estimates, and therefore in turn means that “10 years to save the low target of the Paris Agreement” is likely more like 3-4…

    1. albrt

      I don’t see much difference between ten years and three years to “save the low target of the Paris Agreement” because there is a near zero percent chance that humans are going to do either of those things.

      Humans are going to burn hydrocarbons as fast as they can until the hydrocarbons are too difficult and expensive to recover. Period. If some humans slow down the burning of hydrocarbons, others will pick up the slack. This will continue for a lot more than ten years.

      The one chance to slow down burning hydrocarbons would be if the finance economy blows up to such an extent that fracking and other expensive methods of hydrocarbon recovery cannot be maintained by pumping Fed funny money into western stock and bond markets. I don’t think that will happen soon enough. Money-losing operations are the best way to deploy Fed funny money because the inflation pressures are so much smaller.

      1. Halcyon (formerly AnonyMouse)

        I agree with you on the point that there’s not much sense worrying too much about any notional carbon budget for 1.5C warming (aside from out of scientific interest and determining our degree of family-blogged-ness) because whether it’s on the highest or lowest possible end of expectations, we’re poised to blast right through it.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Whether we adhere to a carbon ‘budget’ or not converts a matter of existential concern into yet another a matter for a Market. There is no carbon ‘budget’. Shifting the Earth’s climate is not a problem a Market should or can decide. The very idea of a carbon ‘budget’ reveals the great moral poverty of our civilization.

        I believe Charney’s simplification of the impacts due to the growing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere — to calculating a single factor sensitivity coefficient was a mistake. The average temperature of the Earth is a simple but overly abstract concept. Worse, it captures only one of many impacts and sensitivities of the Shifting Climate while drawing attention away from those other concerns. It also feeds into the idea of carbon ‘budget’ which gave the political economic regime a nifty tool to use for making ill-considered and ill-weighted policy decisions. The idea of a carbon sensitivity number also tends to suggest a fictional linearity of the changes coming as the Climate Shifts. [The framing of the sensitivity number as a sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 obscured what amount of atmospheric CO2 Charney used as the initial amount of atmospheric CO2. It takes a little digging to find — at least I think I found? — that Charney used 280 ppm — the pre-industrial level of CO2 — as his initial CO2 level.(This year we got up to 417 ppm)]

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The irony here is that this revised range for ECS basically shifts the carbon budget for a decent shot at 1.5C towards the lower end of estimates, and therefore in turn means that “10 years to save the low target of the Paris Agreement” is likely more like 3-4…

      If one considers the issue solely in the abstract, the models (hence the estimates (hence the “budget”)) are just not very “good” science, since one major subsystem within them (clouds) has not been constructed from observational data, but from “parameterization.”

      That said, the science is surely as good as it can be, and the Precautionary Principle is controlling. We have only one Earth, as Taleb remarks.

  2. John Zelnicker

    Lambert – I haven’t finished the post yet, but I wanted to thank you for showcasing Stieglitz’s work. He is one of my favorite photographers; I have a couple of high quality books of his work. Some of his photos are absolutely luminous.

    He was also one of the major contributors to making photography a fine art.

    1. Basil Pesto

      +1 on this, I have long admired equivalents and, in my imagination at least, it has influenced my own photography

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > showcasing Stieglitz’s work

      I completely misjudged Stieglitz because I have him filed under the sort of photographer who does a ton of manipulation in post to be artsy. I did, however, remember the series title, Equivalents, but I thought it was Weston!

      So imagine my surprise when I did a little research…. Stieglitz really went up on the charts for me after this, because pointing your camera at the sky with clouds as your subject was a new thing on the face of the earth!

      1. John Zelnicker

        Lambert – Edward Weston is another of my favorite photographers.

        You should see if you can find the Aperture Monograph book of his work from 1971 called The Flame of Recognition edited by Nancy Newhall.

        It includes notes from his diary accompanying the pictures. His photos of a Nautilus shell are enchanting. He’s got some great cloud pictures, too.

  3. Synoia

    I once saw a circular rainbow, during summer on the High Veldt East of Joberg. I’ve never seen one since.

    All the other rainbows I’ve seen were arches. I’d love to understand how that circular one was generated.

    1. John Zelnicker

      December 13, 2020 at 10:45 pm


      I’ve seen double rainbows, one above the other, in the Caribbean, but never a circular one. That must have been quite a sight.

      1. ambrit

        I’ve seen double rainbows here in Hattiesburg and a bit west of here in Columbia, always seen when looking to the east. I’ve never figured that out. Usually, when I have seen this, one rainbow is very strong and bright and the other is faint, nestled underneath the other.
        I’ll guess and say that Synoia’s circular rainbow could have been generated by a high altitude ice crystal cloud.
        Rainbows always make me think of Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms investigating the nature of light.

      2. Susan the other

        Yes, I finally saw one. Spectacular. It faded at the “away” end but was still circular. (As you look at it it is just to your left of the sun.) And there was a point close by where the confluence of light (?) in a circle formed what looked like another sun. Is that where light is divided and goes in two directions? But it was all part of the phenomenon of rainbow light – I assume. So it was very unusual. Does this have to do mostly with a level of higher/higher altitude atmospheric humidity? I’d think so because our climate has changed to include much more fog that before – without explanation. This is still a desert climate. Now with fog. Go figure.

      3. Basil Pesto

        As I understand it, all rainbows are technically double, but the second one is often so faint as to be invisible.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Is a moonbow the same as a halo around the moon? Or bigger and more spectacular?

        ” When the moon is in her house, it will rain soon”.

    2. Aumua

      All rainbows are circular of course, but you can only see part of it: which ever part of sunlight is reflected back to your eye by water droplets. So usually they don’t extend below the horizon, although they might under some specific conditions. What you saw may also not been a rainbow per se, but a halo which is a related but different phenomenon.

  4. Joe Lambke

    When solar particle forcing, included in IPCC version 6 data set, is used in models, it becomes apparent that global warming is not happening.

    We are beginning to see how “incompleteness” of models led to faulty conclusions, and caused anxiety for no reason.

    Of course we should pollute less and consume less.

    However consumption and pollution are social problems, not climate problems.

    1. John Zelnicker

      @Joe Lambke
      December 13, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      Please provide evidence when making such assertions. IIRC, that’s required as part of the site Policies (above).


      1. Lambert Strether Post author


        I wish some clever climate data scientists would create a citizen science emulator and do an aggregation of missing bug splats, animal migration, glacier retreat, late and early flowering, pond and river freezing, the beginning of heating season, and so forth (I’m sure there are many other examples). I’m sure that in the aggregate, the case for climate change would be overwhelming.

  5. laodan

    Thanks for laying out a rather complex subject in a manner that is accessible to all.

    I have just one quibble with this part of the quote from “Climate models and precautionary measures, Issues in Science and Technology” :

    1. “It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large”.

    The hard facts go as follows :

    — What we know to this day about ancestral wisdom, which by the way was the highest form of knowledge within a worldview called animism, is that tribal societies relied on it to survive in extremely difficult weather conditions during a span of at least 100,000 years… These difficult weather conditions were abruptly interrupted, at the tail-end of the Younger-Dryas some 11,700 years ago, giving way to the most propitious climate conditions for the expansion of life. The following graph gives a visualization of what I’m talking about. The context of this graph is given by the following Wikipedia page

    — What we know about science is that it is the highest form of knowledge within the quasi-worldview of Modernity. Science, in its mature form, is at best 250 years old and during that short span of time, with the most favorable climate conditions possible for life, it has been thriving while being financed by capital holders, and their state servants, eager to apply “scientific knowings” in order to increase their profits. But the consequences of the application of science were externalized, or better the application of science created side-effects, that accumulated and finally formed the human predicament that we discover today in Late-Modernity.

    2. “And it is standard textbook decision theory that a policy should depend at least as much on uncertainty concerning the adverse consequences as it does on the known effects. ”

    In light of the hard facts, exposed in 1, what does this amalgamation of science and ancestral wisdom suggest to you ?

    The fact is that :

    — there is no such a “standard textbook decision theory” that is accepted as Western political wisdom. The Western handling and the debates about the handling of Covid-19 should suffice to debase this idea for what it really is : wishful thinking.

    — there is no possible credible way to argue that the financing of science, by big capital and its state servants, could possibly result one day in the application of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle, in Black Elk’s words, meant that the Lakota “confederation” of tribes would ban any new technology before making sure that the application of that technology would have no side-effects on the life of the next 7 generations… Who in his serious mind would believe, even for a second, that a thinking of that sort could possibly one day be put in application by Monsanto or by General-Motors, or by any corporation for that matter ?

    1. JEHR

      laodan, thanks for the comment which means a lot, especially your last paragraph which puts the world’s dilemma in its proper context. It makes me wonder how we can solve our climate problems when the real problem is the financialization (or commodification) of everything.

    2. JTMcPhee

      And a recent tweet from the Biden avatar reassured us, in a single portentous sentence, that “Science will always be at the forefront of my administration.” To the PMC and true believers in Dem-ontology, that must be so very reassuring. To me, I hear the CEO of Dow Chemical assuring us that the dioxins in the environment around and downwind and downstream of their various plants were, based on the “science,” likely the result of the “Trace Chemistries of Fire.” But see Industry’s “True Lies” – The politics behind the scientific debate on dioxin,

      “Science” is a too, but it’s also a club…

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > there is no possible credible way to argue that the financing of science, by big capital and its state servants, could possibly result one day in the application of the precautionary principle.

      Yes, that’s a problem…

  6. LawnDart

    Brother, you picked the wrong forum for the “global warming is not happening” statement.

    I will post one link so as that you may become better informed, and I encourage other commenters to do the same:

    The lands that I used to hike, hunt and fish have been rapidly changing. I have seen the devastation first-hand, and many of our forests are turning into grasslands.

    Jos, you are either willfully blind or dishonest.

      1. LawnDart

        Thank you, ambrit, and I believe that you are correct in comparing it to “Hasbara,” which of course is a public relations effort to shift focus “to the positive,” or in the case of climate denial/denialism, induce doubt.

        This one’s for you!

        I am a DINFOS graduate, having cross-trained to get out of a “stop-loss” position (so as to get the heck out of “our” military back in the day) so I have a bit of insight into PR. And dissemination of propaganda, but that wasn’t a DINFOS thing. I like to think that I am using my experience on the dark side to let in the light.

        “To plant a tree, whose fruits or shade you shall not enjoy…” What is Joe’s legacy going to look like? Has he no sense of stewardship or common decency?

        1. ambrit

          Thanks for the fascinating link. Looks like a good source for fairly ‘unbiased’ investigation of climate subjects.
          And DINFOS! My oh my, an example of the theory of “full spectrum” strategy in action.
          Need I say, “Thank you for your service?”
          Right now, you are still serving the public by explicating the range of ‘information services’ available to the “Organs of Public Security.”
          Go long cynicism! (Nervously glances over shoulder.)
          Stay safe!

  7. ChrisAtRU

    Thanks for this! Somewhat sentimental for me. I learned about clouds in high school geography. Our geography teacher was also the rugby coach. Tomfoolery in class was not tolerated and some lessons did not end well … ;-) But I took from his classes a fascination with clouds and to this day, use an expression I first heard him use – “cirrus clouds are the harbingers of fair weather”. I’ll whisper or even say this aloud at times when I look up and a big ole blue sky and see those thin, wispy cirrus cloud hangin out up on high!

  8. Aumua

    As a student and recent graduate of Atmospheric Science, one of the projects I’ve been involved with is closely related to this topic. What I helped to design, build and operate are portable, low cost CCN counting instruments. These consist of a small cylindrical chamber, a pump, thermoelectric cooler, a little moisture and a video camera. A Raspberry Pi drives the CCN detection cycle and records the data. Many of these devices operating all over the Earth could help to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about CCN, clouds and climate feedbacks.

    It’s good to see that the subject is hot enough (no pun) to have its own post here.

    1. Halcyon (formerly AnonyMouse)

      This is seriously cool. I hope to see a lot more of them deployed (maybe as part of radiosonde measurements?) This is one area where we certainly need much more measurement and maybe a bit less parametrization (guessing!)

      1. Aumua

        Well parameterizations are based on physics, experience and some very clever thinking. But what’s making big waves (no pun) in the hydrological and atmospheric sciences right now is the slow realization that machine learning produces better results in many cases. There’s a lot of resistance to this notion obviously, because we’re talking about basically throwing out the physics, and the science, and trusting a black box to spit out the correct results. I have heard it said that if we want our science to survive, then we’ll have to become willing to “work with the machines” as best we can to have physical understanding be a part of the machine learning process wherever possible. Because it’s happening, like it or not. The results are undeniable.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What I helped to design, build and operate are portable, low cost CCN counting instruments.

      I just stumbled on the CCN think in my research — and it wasn’t hard to stumble because it’s an enormous hole….

      > A Raspberry Pi drives the CCN detection cycle and records the data. Many of these devices operating all over the Earth could help to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about CCN, clouds and climate feedbacks.

      Citizen science!

      Maybe you can tell us more about this project at some point…

      1. Aumua

        It’s not my idea and I can’t take credit for it, but I did contribute to the realization of it.

        I also probably shouldn’t discuss it in too much detail.

  9. Hickory nut

    Thanks for the interesting post. It’s worth repeating though: this cloud modeling research is beside the point. The underlying attitude is, “how long can we defecate in our home before the results are unbearable? And how long can we do obviously evil things without suffering consequences?” It’s a major source of my distrust in “scientists” and related institutions that they have these attitudes. I want no part of it.

    If we decided we wanted to live in a healthy world, we wouldn’t need this sort of research. We’d know we needed to live in mutual relationship with all life, and we’d sense clearly whether we were living in this way or not.

  10. Rod

    I got the Cloud Primer in Cub Scouts followed by more–precursor to weather coming, in Boy Scouts. It gave me comfort to feel I could ‘read’ some of what nature was telling me and made me more comfortable being in a familiar Nature. Lessons carried up and used in the mountains above the tree line on many occasions.

    Interesting, for me in the Nuclear Army, Clouds were to be observed while on QRS/CAS as they indicate wind direction and it was important (to survive for the Long Term Mission) to NOT be positioned downwind of the Nuclear Blast.

    Lately I have been amazed at feel of the summer sun on my skin and very aware of how clouds interrupt that feeling so noticeably. Nature surely is giving us feedback.

    1. Wukchumni

      Weather is for most people a matter of dressing for it, but when you’re in the backcountry for an extended time you really become one with things, and it rarely rains in the Sierra Nevada, but when it does the rain comes down for 30 minutes to an hour and then returns you to your regularly scheduled sunny day, only to repeat itself the next day, say an hour or 2 later with the same 45 minute stanza of wet followed by sun, You’re always watching the clouds-especially in the morning-indicative of rain but not always-sometimes you get the great Sierra psychout where you’d swear the heavens are going to open up and then nary a drop. Another fun one is to watch under sunny skies a distant system of H bomb looking clouds build up and let loose say 20 miles away, just spectacular.

      I’ve had it go like that for 4 or 5 days in a row many times, and it usually takes a hotty down in the Central Valley to set it off, such as 110 degrees, and all that heat has to go somewhere and only clouds rush in.

  11. JEHR

    This post brings back many memories of my training to be a meteorological observer in the air force in the early 1960s. I loved learning about the clouds and writing down data for temperatures, rainfall and snowfall, etc. My favourite clouds were altocumulus castellanus and cumulo-mammalia. By looking at the clouds you could tell when a low-pressure system or a high-pressure system was passing by. I still have a pretty good idea of when it will rain by carefully looking at the clouds; I am at least as correct in this prediction as the weather service us.

    Thanks for the happy recollections!

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    @Joe Lambke,

    If your view that ” global warming is not happening” is correct, you have a tremendous contrarian investing opportunity laid out before you. Just catalog all the things global warming theory has predicted would happen or will happen . . . . and decide what you would invest in if none of those things happen even as others are running away from the prospect of those things happening.

    For example, if there is no global warming, then sea levels are currently rising for some random reason and some other random reason will make them fall again at some point. As more people get scared of rising sea levels and move inland, land by the sea will become cheap and then cheaper. When the rest of society finally realises that the sea has stopped rising and may even be falling again, they will want to return. And you or your heirs will be able to sell them land for dollars a front-foot after you bought it for pennies an acre.
    The more such land you can buy, the more seeds of greater future fortune you will plant.

  13. Henry

    It is so magical the way that life is intertwined with clouds. I imagine everyone has noticed how much cooler it is in a forest and of course the larger the trees and the bigger the forest the greater volume of air that is cooled. Since cool air is more dense than warm air it sinks and create a vacuum that pulls surrounding air in. If are contiguous they can use the process to pull air and moisture all the way from the coast. Now cool also holds less moisture than warm air and hence promotes water condensation (potentially rain). Trees also drop a lot of organic matter that acts as a sponge to soak up water that they can then pump up from their roots to their leaves and out through little pores on the underside of their leaves, called stoma, in a process called transpiration. For large trees this can be an amazing number of gallons/day thus further adding to the moisture in the air. An even more amazing, at least to me, thing happens as trees get older they nurture a population of bacteria and fungi that are released into the air and carried by the winds up into the atmosphere where they seed the clouds (act as nuclei for the water to condense on to form rain drops). Even more amazing is that trees themselves can release volatile organic molecules that when oxidized by the ozone in the upper atmosphere and bombarded by cosmic rays also seed clouds.
    Now compare this with a city where the asphalt roads and rooftops as well as the concrete buildings and walks absorb the sunlight, with a surface that is impervious to water and it just runs of thus cities heat and dry the air, so that even with all the particulate pollution reduce the likelihood of rain. Even a forrest turned into farmland heats and drys the air to some extent as of course does a clear cut or a forest of young trees progressively less as they get larger.

    Since like most natural processes this is not linear, but chaotic it would be interesting to seem some modeling done around it. For those not familiar with the difference I think these are nice intros:

  14. Synoia

    Liquid water at our Ambient Temperatures and Pressures should not exist.

    BCNOFNe is the second line of non metal elements from the periodic table, I’ll ignore Ne – Neon.

    At Standard Temperature and Pressure

    Boron + Hydrogen was never discussed in my years of Chemistry.
    Carbon + Hydrogen, CH4 is methane, a gas
    Nitrogen + Hydrogen is Ammonia, a gas
    Oxygen + Hydrogen is a gas, forms persistent clouds, floats in air, and a is Liquid.
    Fluorine + Hydrogen is a nasty gas.

    The factor added to explain water as a liquid and a gas at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure) is Hydrogen bonds, and there was no explanation why these were effective with Oxygen, and nothing else.

    And I have never been able to resolve that Question, because the unique action of Hydrogen and Oxygen produces a key mechanism for life. I asked “why” as was, and is, my response, to me, (Hydrogen Bonds) which and did not and has coalesced into what I consider a coherent answer answer, and is a primary reason why I did not pursue a career in the Chemistry field. That an the best employment for Chemists in in the oil industry, and I both grew up in that industry and experienced the benevolence of petroleum companies as employers.

    The explanation of hydrogen bonds should also include how clouds are formed a various altitudes in the atmosphere.

    A link, for perusal, would be nice.

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