Who doesn’t enjoy a lazy spring day spent lying on your back, watching the clouds float by? They seem to change shape so slowly, yet it happens almost before you notice it. But outside of leisure activities, clouds are confusing — even to climatologists, according to Nature.com.

If climate change were an equation, clouds would be the most difficult variable to balance. In fact, they are actually an equation all by themselves. The Nature.com story says, “That's because global climate models cannot explicitly capture cloud formation. Instead they use a series of equations to describe the average conditions under which clouds form and decay, a technique called parameterization.”

Now, however, a team of researchers led by Cristiana Stan of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies in Calverton, Md., has begun to unlock the secret role that clouds play in climate change.

Stan’s team has simulated the Earth's climate using a model that represents cloud processes. After analyzing standard climate models, the team replaced cloud formation and decay with a different, two-dimensional model that resolved process questions and ran the simulations again.

They found that when clouds were clearly represented in the model, the climate simulation drastically improved on several fronts. Nature.com says it more accurately depicted, “seasonal precipitation patterns and several important climatic phenomena, such as the Madden–Julian Oscillation, the Asian monsoon and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation.”

What does all of that mean?

It means that in future studies, clouds can be better represented in climate models to ensure more accurate simulations. It also means scientists must cease to depend on cloud parameterization equations in their models and use real-life cloud process models instead.

Maybe a day will come where we can harness the power of clouds in our fight against climate change.

The secret role of clouds in climate change
Scientists have begun to unlock the confusing role that clouds play in climate change.