Cloudy feedback on global warming

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers have identified a mechanism that causes low clouds – and their influence on Earth’s energy balance – to respond differently to global warming depending on their spatial pattern.

The results imply that studies relying solely on recent observed trends are likely to underestimate how much Earth will warm due to increased carbon dioxide. The research appears in the Oct. 31 edition of the journal,Nature Geosciences.


The research focused on clouds, which influence Earth’s by reflecting incoming solar radiation and reducing outgoing thermal radiation. As the Earth’s surface warms, the net radiative effect of clouds also changes, contributing a feedback to the climate system. If these cloud changes enhance the radiative cooling of the Earth, they act as a negative, dampening feedback on warming. Otherwise, they act as a positive, amplifying feedback on warming. The amount of due to increased carbon dioxide is critically dependent on the sign and magnitude of the cloud feedback, making it an area of intense research.

This is an area attracting a great deal of research.   The ramifications of changes in solar energy reaching the biosphere of earth could be serious.   But studies reveal disagreement between a number of authors.

OCTOBER 31, 2016

Chen Zhou et al, Impact of decadal cloud variations on the Earth’s energy budget,Nature Geoscience (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2828


Cloud Cover and Global Warming

Experts reveal that clouds have moderated warming triggered by climate change.

A new study has revealed how clouds are modifying the warming created by human-caused climate change in some parts of the world.Led by Swansea University’s Tree Ring Research Group, researchers from Sweden, Finland and Norway analysed information contained in the rings of ancient pine from northern Scandinavia to reveal how  have reduced the impact of natural phases of warmth in the past and are doing so again now to moderate the caused by anthropogenic .

The study, Cloud Cover Feedback Moderates Fennoscandian Summer Temperature Changes Over the Past 1,000 Years, is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Ceilometers vs MPL

There is a decision to be made when deciding between these 2 forms of instrument when considering a monitoring program.

Firstly both Ceilometers and MPL ( Micro pulsed Lidar)  are  instruments based on the LIDAR principle.     MPL uses photon counting detectors,  while Ceilometers use avalanche photodiodes in analog mode.   Beyond that all sampling and data conversion are digital.

  • Cost

Ceilometers are significantly lower in cost than MPL  This is mainly due to the laser technology used.    The lasers in Ceilometers can last up to 6-8 years and the laser replacement cost is  relatively low.

  • Laser Pulse Source.

Most Ceilometers use  a low cost solid-state pulsed laser diode,  while the MPL  uses a frequency doubled NdYag laser.

  • Wavelength

Most Ceilometers emit in the range 905 to 920 nm,  which is not  visible and the launch pulses are reduced in energy so that the sensor is eye safe.   The MPL emits at 532 nm and is able to launch higher energy pulses meaning the range is greater,  or conversely the ability to detect low levels of scattering ( eg MIE )  at low levels is enhanced.   Potential users need to look at the differences between scattering properties of the target at the 2 wavelengths.

  • Polarisation

Ceilometers do not have dual polarisation channels and the discrimination capabilities of MPL may make them more suitable for the planned studies

  • Deployment Costs

Ceilometers are designed to be operated long term in a wide range of environments and are more suited to remote deployment where there is less maintenance available.

Ceilometers are widely used for PBL studies.   Because of increased range/sensitivity MPL is favoured in high cloud studies,  but high range ceilometers are available and might be selected if a multi sensor long term study is being undertaken.


Ceilometers for Cloud Amount

A recent paper by Wagner and Kleiss compares a Ceilometer with Total Sky Imager and Micropulse lidar looking at suitability of ceilometers for  estimation of cloud amount.

In summary they say,  in part:

“Ceilometers will be a mainstay of the operational automated weather observation network for years to come.

They are relatively inexpensive and require little ongoing maintenance, and are capable of 24-h observations.
While TSIs produce automated observations that are qualitatively more similar to human observations of sky cover than the ceilometer, ongoing operational
costs like mirror cleaning and reduced hours of operation limit this instrument’s applicability for deployment in unattended environments.

Two significant sources of error are associated with the automated sky cover observations obtained by single ceilometer ASOS installations: the spot view of the instrument renders it unable to see the entire sky, while the 3660-m height limit renders the instrument incapable of observing high clouds. These errors are not insignificant, and their magnitudes vary depending on the actual cloud coverage. The spatiotemporal averaging error is smallest for clear and overcast conditions as the sky exhibits little variability in these conditions. The high cloud error is at its smallest when skies are dominated by low clouds, and it tends to increase as low cloud coverage lessens, allowing high clouds to peek through.”

The ability to reliably detect upper atmosphere cloud is restricted to a subset of available ceilometers which have ranges in excess of the usual 7,500 to 10,000 metre range. Such ceilometers include the a CL51, the 8600-CHS and the CHM15K



ToPROF: Ceilometers and Lidar Applications

 As part of the EU “COST” programmes,  the ToPROF group is working on  operational ground based profiling with ceilometers, doppler lidars and microwave radiometers for improving weather forecasts.
Work started in 2014,  and is progressing towards a nominal completion date in 2020.
For overall details refer to the ToPROF Home Page
Within the To PROF group,  a Ceilometer Working group has been established.
Here are the details of this working group  This group would be of interest to  those within the following End-Users
  • National weather services (incl. COPERNICUS/MACC): calibrated attenuated
    backscatter profiles to evaluate NWP models (through forward operators); Cloud
    base height for NWP evaluation and weather monitoring.
  • Agencies in charge of atmospheric surveillance for air traffic: occurrence, height and  mass concentrations of ash layers; diagnostic and short-term forecast of fog and other low visibility events.
  • Agencies in charge of Air Quality monitoring: boundary layer height; freetropospheric aerosol transport.
  • Networks in charge of GHG monitoring: boundary layer height to quantify GHG
    dilution effects.
  • EUMETSAT: European-wide validation of cloud-base height and fog
  • Renewable energy industry: Photovoltaic ReN – cloud/fog fraction and evolution for nowcasting applications (combined with geostationary satellite); Concentrated solar power: aerosol vertical distribution; Wind ReN – wind profiles from Doppler Lidars.

Ceilometer Network detects Dust Plume

Title: Dust storm from Syria- a potential new aerosol source in the E. Mediterranean- A ceilometer and synoptic study
Authors: Alpert, Pinhas; Egert, Smadar; Uzan, Leenes


On 7 Sep 2015 an unprecedented huge dust plume approached the SE Mediterranean basin from the northeast- Syria region. According to the Israeli meteorological service it is the first time in 75 years of measurements, that a dust storm reaches Israel early September, lasts several days and dust concentrations reach values 100 times the normal (1700µg/m3). Dust storms are normally monitored in the east Mediterranean using satellites and surface PM data. Obviously, these cannot show the vertical evolution of the dust including penetration, sinking and cleaning since vertical profiles are not available. High-resolution, micro Lidar Ceilometer network is gradually established in Israel. A few instruments of this network were already operational during the dust storm. The most crucial vertical information, monitored by these Ceilometers with 10m resolution vertically, every 16s, is analyzed. The difference in the cloud-layers allow the investigation of the high altitude of 1000m dust penetration, its sinking into the complex structured 250-500m mixed layer and the gradual 3D cleaning. This finding contradicts the conventional understanding that cleaning is due to gradual descent and shows not only the vertical fluctuation during the entire event but also the vertical rise to 2000m at the end of the event. The vertical information showed that the actual event period duration was 7 days, compared to only 90 hours based on traditional detectors. Is it a new dust source in the E. Mediterranean-long and short term trends?

International Commission on Clouds and Precipitation (ICCP)

The International Commission on Clouds and Precipitation (ICCP) is a Commission of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (IAMAS)
The IAMAS is one of the associations of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG)

The ICCP holds a conference every 4 years.   The last conference was at Manchester University in 2016, The next is due in 2020.

Typical subjects in calls for papers are theoretical, observational and numerical modelling studies of cloud and precipitation physics, cloud chemistry and cloud dynamics.  

For instance the following subjects are commonly covered at the conferences

  • Basic cloud and precipitation physics
  • Warm boundary layer clouds
  • Convective clouds (including cloud electrification)
  • Mixed phase clouds (including Arctic/Antarctic stratus, mid-level clouds)
  • Cirrus clouds
  • Orographic clouds
  • Fog and fog layers
  • Mesoscale cloud systems (including severe storms)
  • Tropical clouds
  • Southern Ocean clouds
  • Polar stratospheric clouds and noctilucent clouds
  • Aerosol-cloud-precipitation-interactions and processing
  • Clouds and climate (including radiative properties of clouds)
  • Ice nuclei and cloud condensation nuclei
  • Cloud and precipitation chemistry
  • Measurement techniques (of cloud and precipitation properties) and uncertainties
  • Applications of cloud and precipitation physics

Ceilometers. Who supplies them ?

There are very few Ceilometer manufacturers in the world.   Ceilometers have advanced technical requirements and the cost of development is  high.   In the production phase ceilometers are assembled from  many special optical and electronic parts.   During testing they require specialised pulsed laser power meters,  spectrophotometers and advanced electronic test equipment, together with a cloudy climate to enable regular testing and continuous product improvement.

Sensor Range Class

  • 12500 ft range, ( 3800m)  an example of which was the original CT12K.  This range is now encompassed by the 25,000 ft range sensors.
  • 25,000 ft range ( 7600m) These are the main sensors on the market since  in the main application there is little operational need to go beyond even 12500 ft.  These sensors also find application in Planetary Boundary Layer ( PBL) studies.
  •  50,000 ft  range (15,200m) Special instruments that find more application in volcanic ash warning in aviation and upper atmosphere studies in atmospheric science.   Although in theory only requiring a modest increase in signal to noise ratio,  the cloud species above 20,000 ft are most often comprised of ice crystals and have much lower volume back-scatter coefficients than water cloud so the reliable detection of thin layers of cirrus cloud becomes very difficult while maintaining the laser eye safety mandate.  Ceilometers in this range generally achieve the necessary signal to noise ratio improvement by a range of techniques including increasing laser pulse energy ( while still remaining eye safe ), using a different laser wavelength,  and or reducing the telescope field of view and laser beam divergence.

25,000 ft range for Aviation and PBL studies

CL31     :

8200-CHS :

CS135   :

50000 ft Range for Atmospheric Science

CL51     :




Ceilometers and Snow

Like Rain, Snow produces quite high levels of backscatter.   But the raindrops and snow flakes have very different shapes, velocities and surface area to mass ratios.  More expensive ceilometers may have the ability to discriminate between snow and rain.

A typical LIDAR curtain plot for cloud appears below:

snow plot

Ref: University of Utah Atmospheric Science

The snow is coming from a cloud at around 500m .  The cloud and snow appear to extinguish the returns from higher layers,  if any.   Some of the snow is light and evaporates before it gets to ground level.  ( low level green return )

Work has been done to try to determine snowfall rate from Lidar returns.  According to Ed Eloranta of the University of Wisconsin Madison,  the technique requires radar and  does not require any knowledge of the snowflake shape.

Download Poster

Click to access arm_09.pdf



Ceilometer Siting


In the past ICAO Annex 3 SARPS recommended that a ceilometer be placed at the middle marker site 900-1200 m from the touch down zone for instrumented runways .

This had an advantage that power and comms were generally  already established at that site or were planned at that site.

This gave a reading of cloud base height at a crucial decision height on the glidepath

With addition of ILS and co-located DME, more and more aerodromes have no middle marker. The piece of land located 900 to 1200 m from the landing threshold may be outside the aerodrome airfield and a ceilometer installation may be impracticable, or very costly.

As a consequence in more and more cases an alternative location must be found.

A typical recommendation for siting the ceilometer would be :

“When instrumented systems are used for the measurement of the cloud amount and the height of cloud base, representative observations should be obtained by the use of sensors appropriately sited. For local routine and special reports, in the case of aerodromes with precision approach runways, sensors for cloud amount and height of cloud base should be sited to give the best practicable indications of the height of cloud base and cloud amount at the runway threshold in use. For that purpose, a sensor should be installed at a distance less than 500 m from the threshold. This distance can be extended up to 900-1200 m from the landing threshold in the axis of the approach end of the runway”

The user should refer to the latest edition of Annex 3 to ensure compliance.

Ceilometers for Dust Storm Profiling

Sydney Dust Storm 2009

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009, The storm, the worst in 70 years, led to cancelled or delayed flights, traffic problems, and health issues,  The concentration of particles in the air reached 15,000 micrograms per cubic meter in New South Wales during the storm, A normal day sees a particle concentration 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter.

Work on the use of Ceilometers for analysis of  that  Dust Storm is decribed in the paper:

Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm

Among the more interesting information in this paper was the curtain plot showing the increase  in backscatter when the wall of the duststorm hit,  the very high concentration around ground level and the vertical extent of the dust.  The maximum vertical extent of this plot is 1500 metres ,  or approx 5000 ft.


(Curtain Plot showing onset of the Dust Storm and estimated particle Concentration from paper: Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm )

Ceilometers like the 8200-CHS are suitable for this type of work,  where dust storms are experienced regularly,  such as the Harmattan in sub saharan Africa,  the Churgui in Morocco,  the Khamasin in Egypt, the Shamal in Iraq or the Kali Andhi in India

High Altitude Clouds

High Altitude clouds  fall into 2 categories,

  1. Those with  a low base and vertical development are Cumulonimbus and Towering Cumulus.     At the base these are water clouds,    so the ceilometer only “sees”  a few hundred feet into the cloud.
  2. Those with a high base,  including Cirrus, Cirrostratus and Cirrocumulus and Altostratus

The Cirrus cloud family are composed of Ice Crystals,  and are very often “optically thin”and they have low backscatter coefficients,  so are difficult to detect with ceilometers,  because the laser pulse energy is limited to eye safe levels.

Altostratus may be composed of ice crystals. In some ice crystal altostratus, very thin, rapidly disappearing horizontal sheets of water droplets appear at random. The sizes of the ice crystals in the cloud tended to increase as altitude decreased. However, close to the bottom of the cloud, the particles decreased in size again

Altostratus cloud with a water phase  may have a strong backscatter signal and can be picked up as in the case below

17000 FT 26-11 TREVISO

Alto stratus Cloud at 17,000 ft

Ref 1 : Wikipedia : Alto Stratus entry.

Ref 2.  Wikipedia Cirrus Cloud entry.

Single Lens vs Dual Lens Ceilometer

All ceilometers which are set up for  long range cloud height measurement are “far sighted”,  having a blind region in front of the unit.  This is shown in the diagram below ,  and the height of the blind spot Rio is heavily dependent on the axial separation d ,  the beam divergence and the telescope angle of acceptance.  The signal is maximised at the full overlap distance Rovf as shown below.

dual overlap

Since most ceilometers are designed for the best acheivable  signal to noise ratio,  the telescope angle of acceptance is set to the limit of  focal length,  sensor active area and lens aberration.

The single lens designs,  such as the CL51 and 8200-CHS feature a low  value of d and thus a much reduced overlap height

Single lens overlap geometry

There are a number of different optical arrangements to enable the reduction of d to zero or to a small value to minimise the overlap height.

One form of “single lens” Ceilometer,  using a “split lens ” approach (reference (Vande Hey, J. ;  Coupland, J. ; Richards, J. ; Sandford, A. )

It is worth noting that earlier designs of dual lens ceilometers actually utilised the blind spot to reduce the required dynamic range to prevent overload of the return signal processing channel, and greatly reduce optical  crosstalk in the instrument itself ( known as To crosstalk)

Later ceilometers using the single lens optics,  such as the MTECH SYSTEMS  8200-CHS feature special techniques to minimise optical crosstalk and very high dynamic range analog to digital converters to enable detection of fog close to the ground without saturation of the signal

Cloud Atlas

The definitive reference to cloud types and Cloud species is the ICAO Cloud Atlas which can be downloaded for free from this site:

WMO Cloud Atlas Vol 1    WMO Cloud Atlas Vol 2

There are a number of less detailed cloud type images on the internet.   For example

Clouds Online

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology have a good references to cloud observation

Australian Bureau Chapter 13

Cloud Types Graphic

Current ceilometers have a range out to about 25,000 ft,  and other models with larger telescopes built in,.  can reach up to about 40000 ft.   For use in aviation,  at airports a range of 12,00 ft is considered adequate.

Ceilometer Laser Safety.

Ceilometers must be eye safe and meet Class or Class 1m  Laser Safety standard under the international specification IEC 60825-1  or ANSI Z136 in the USA

The phrase “eye-safe” is used below.

Class 1:   This class is eye-safe under all operating conditions.

Class 1M:  This class is safe for viewing directly with the naked eye, but may be hazardous to view with the aid of optical instruments. In general, the use of magnifying glasses increases the hazard from a widely-diverging beam (eg LEDs and bare laser diodes), and binoculars or telescopes increase the hazard from a wide, collimated beam   Radiation in classes 1 and 1M can be visible, invisible or both.

The beam from a ceilometer has a very low divergence,  which is mainly determined  by the finite size of the laser source and the ceilometer lens/mirror focal length,  but can also be effected by spherical aberration and diffraction effects in the optical path in the instrument.

Wikipedia Entry: Laser Safety

Sky Condition, How is it assessed ?

A human observer looks at the sky and estimates the coverage in 8ths ,  0 being clear sky and 8 being overcast.   The human observer then estimates cloud height and applies these estimates of cover for each layer.    It is quite obvious that if there are no breaks in the sky,  any higher layers present cannot be estimated.    The human observer also suffers from the “packing” effect of an oblique line of sight , and usually tends to overestimate cover.

For each layer the human observer will give the condition FEW,  SCATTER,  BROKEN AND overcast.

A ceilometer can only “see” cloud above it,  so can only estimate the sky condition by analysing heights over a time period.

The Sky Condition Algorithm in the 8200-CHS  is based on that developed by the US National Weather Service and used in their automated surface observing system (ASOS) units and  guidelines published by the World Meteorological Organization.

A study by the Hughes STX Corp. found that when ceilings were under 5,000 feet, this algorithm agreed with the human observer 78% of the time. With fog, the comparability was 84%, with rain it was 69%, and when snowing 74%. During rain, the NWS Algorithm reported more changes than the human observer.

However at the transition between scattered and broken cloud coverage 4 oktas humans often report too much cloud coverage. This is attributed to the “packing effect;” a condition where an observer does not see the openings in the cloud decks near the horizon due to the viewing angle.   Pilots tend to overestimate the coverage even more than ground observers because of visual compression.

The 8200-CHS algorithm is not biased by the “packing effect” because it measures only the sky conditions passing over the sensor

Details of the 8200-CHS specifications can be found here 8200-CHS Page