Friday, April 22, 2011

Clouds, clouds, burning bright

NASA/Goddard Space Institute: High up in the sky near the poles some 50 miles above the ground, silvery blue clouds sometimes appear, shining brightly in the night. First noticed in 1885, these clouds are known as noctilucent, or "night shining," clouds. Their discovery spawned over a century of research into what conditions causes them to form and vary – questions that still tantalize scientists to this day. Since 2007, a NASA mission called Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) has shown that the cloud formation is changing year to year, a process they believe is intimately tied to the weather and climate of the whole globe.

"The formation of the clouds requires both water and incredibly low temperatures," says Charles Jackman, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is NASA's project scientist for AIM. "The temperatures turn out to be one of the prime driving factors for when the clouds appear."

So the appearance of the noctilucent clouds, also known as polar mesospheric clouds or PMCs since they occur in a layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere, can provide information about the temperature and other characteristics of the atmosphere. This in turn, helps researchers understand more about Earth's low altitude weather systems, and they've discovered that events in one hemisphere can have a sizable effect in another.

…AIM researchers also believe there is a connection between seemingly disparate atmospheric patterns in the north and south. The upwelling of polar air each summer that contributes to noctilucent cloud formation is part of a larger circulation loop that travels between the two poles. So wind activity some 13,000 miles (20,920 km) away in the northern hemisphere appears to be influencing the southern circulation.

…"The real importance of all of that," says Hampton's Russell, "is not only that events down where we live can affect the clouds 50 miles (80 km) above, but that the total atmosphere from one pole to the next is rather tightly connected."…

Looking down from above, AIM captured this composite image of the noctilucent cloud cover above the Southern Pole on December 31, 2009. The 2009 cloud season began a month earlier than the 2010 season did. Credit: NASA/HU/VT/CU LASP

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