Decoding ice clouds: NASA’s IceCube paves the way for improved climate forecasting

IceCube, NASA's innovative project, embarks on the quest to decode the atmospheric mysteries, improving climate models and forecasts.

In May 2018, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took the first space photo of these incredible ice clouds. A small experimental satellite captured how the tiny frozen particles lay inside the clouds, usually called “ice clouds.” Looking at them from the large International Space Station, the astronauts said they saw large, white clouds stretching across the planet. They couldn’t tell a gray one from a puffy white one.

While satellites can see through many clouds and estimate the liquid they contain – to predict their weather precipitation – they cannot distinguish the smaller ice particles that create the colossal rain clouds.

A cirrus is a type of cloud composed of ice crystals and characterized by thin, thin bands accompanied by tufts. PHOTO: Adobe Stock
Cirrus is a cloud of ice crystals characterized by thin, thin bands accompanied by tufts. PHOTO: Adobe Stock

What are the intriguing ice clouds for?

Well, a year to the day after its first space photograph – in May 2017 – IceCube was testing instruments to verify its capability for spatial measurements of the small, frozen crystals that form these clouds. According to Dong Wu, IceCube’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center detailed that “heavy downpours originate from ice clouds.” Ice clouds start as small particles in the atmosphere. As they absorb moisture, the ice crystals grow larger and heavier, causing them to fall to lower altitudes. Eventually, the particles become so heavy that they fall and melt to form raindrops. However, ice crystals can also remain airborne.

As with other clouds, ice clouds affect the Earth’s “energy budget” by reflecting or absorbing the sun’s energy, affecting the emission of heat into space. Therefore, the strange and mind-boggling ice clouds are key variables in climate models. Measuring atmospheric ice on a global scale remains highly uncertain because satellites have been unable to detect the amount of the small ice particles within the clouds, as these particles are too opaque for infrared and visible sensors to locate them. To overcome that limitation, IceCube was equipped with a submillimeter radiometer that bridges the lack of sensitivity between infrared and microwave wavelengths.

Sometimes these swirling clouds are so large that they are visually indistinguishable from one another. PHOTO: Adobe Stock
Sometimes these swirling clouds are so large that they are visually indistinguishable. PHOTO: Adobe Stock

The mission to study ice clouds is just getting started.

NASA‘s mission now is to study ice clouds and help observe our dynamic atmosphere. This will help mankind understand this climatological phenomenon and the Earth’s dynamic atmosphere, specifically the clouds that form at high altitudes in tropical and subtropical regions. Thanks to the PolSIR instrument, which is short for polarized submillimeter ice cloud radiometer, such ice clouds will be studied to determine how and why they change throughout the day. This will provide crucial information on accurately simulating these high-altitude clouds in global climate models.

The research aims to fly two completely identical CubeSatssmall satellites measuring just over 30 centimeters –into orbits three to nine hours apart, eventually observing the daily cycle of ice cloud content and components.

“Studying ice clouds is crucial to improving climate forecasts, and this will be the first time we’ve been able to study ice clouds at this level of detail,” said Nicola Fox, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Each NASA mission is carefully chosen to better understand our home planet.”

They can eventually form a sheet or veil called cirrostratus. PHOTO: Adobe Stock
They can eventually form a sheet or veil called cirrostratus. PHOTO: Adobe Stock

It will cost $37 million, not counting the launch into the atmosphere.

Science study becomes very expensive, so funding programs are always sought. In this case, to know more about the ice clouds will cost the specialists 37 million dollars, which in fact… do not include the launch prices. The radiometer will be the protagonist, as this lower-cost Earth Venture instrument is intended to travel on another mission or commercial satellite to minimize the high value of “liftoff.” Likewise, the Earth Venture class is also focused on providing frequent flight opportunities, so innovative scientific research can fly relatively quickly, usually within five years or less.

Missions like this should not be dismissed, as they provide specific, key research opportunities that help us improve our understanding of what is driving change throughout the Earth system.

“Understanding how these ice clouds respond to a changing climate, and then in turn contribute to additional changes, remains one of the great challenges in predicting what the atmosphere will do in the future,” said Karen St. Germain, who leads NASA’s Earth Science Division. “Radiometers, which measure the radiant energy emitted by clouds, will significantly improve our understanding of how ice clouds change and respond throughout the day.”

Among the technical details, NASA shared that the mission will be led by Ralf Bennartz, principal investigator at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and our already familiar Dong Wu, deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. NASA Goddard will provide the project management team building the two instruments, while the Space Science and Engineering Center will perform science operations at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Also, the two spacecraft will be built by Blue Canyon Technologies in Lafayette, Colorado.

With information from Europa Press and NASA*.