IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Satellite Cloud Observations

Since the TAR, there has been considerable effort in the development and analysis of satellite data sets for documenting changes in global cloud cover over the past few decades. The most comprehensive cloud climatology is that of the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP), begun in July 1983. The ISCCP shows an increase in globally averaged total cloud cover of about 2% from 1983 to 1987, followed by a decline of about 4% from 1987 to 2001 (Rossow and Dueñas, 2004). Cess and Udelhofen (2003) documented decreasing ISCCP total cloud cover in all latitude zones between 40°S and 40°N. Norris (2005a) found that both ISCCP and ship synoptic reports show consistent reductions in middle- or high-level cloud cover from the 1980s to the 1990s over low- and mid-latitude oceans. Minnis et al. (2004) also found consistent trends in high-level cloud cover between ISCCP and surface observations over most areas, except for the North Pacific where they differed by almost 2% per decade. In addition, an analysis of Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II (SAGE II) data revealed a decline in cloud frequency above 12 km between 1985 and 1998 (Wang et al., 2002b) that is consistent with the decrease in upper-level cloud cover noted in ISCCP and ocean surface observations. The decline in upper-level cloud cover since 1987 may also be consistent with a decrease in reflected shortwave (SW) radiation during this period as measured by the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS; see Section 3.4.4). Radiative transfer calculations, which use the ISCCP cloud properties as input, are able to independently reproduce the decadal changes in outgoing LW and reflected SW radiation reported by ERBS (Zhang et al., 2004c).

Analyses of the spatial trends in ISCCP cloud cover reveal changing biases arising from changes in satellite view angle and coverage that affect the global mean anomaly time series (Norris, 2000; Dai et al., 2006). The ISCCP spurious variability may occur primarily in low-level clouds with the least optical thickness (the ISCCP ‘cumulus’ category; Norris, 2005a), due to discontinuities in satellite view angles associated with changes in satellites. Such biases likely contribute to ISCCP’s negative cloud cover trend, although their magnitude and impact on radiative flux calculations using ISCCP cloud data are not yet known. Additional artefacts, including radiometric noise, navigation and rectification errors are present in the ISCCP data (Norris, 2000), but the effects of known and unknown artefacts on ISCCP cloud and flux data have not yet been quantified.

Other satellite data sets show conflicting decadal changes in total cloud cover. For example, analysis of cloud cover changes from the HIRS shows a slight increase in cloud cover between 1985 and 2001 (Wylie et al., 2005). However, spurious changes have also been identified in the HIRS data set, which may affect its estimates of decadal variability. One important source of uncertainty results from the drift in Equatorial Crossing Time (ECT) of polar-orbiting satellite measurements (e.g., HIRS and the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer; AVHRR), which aliases the large diurnal cycle of clouds into spurious lower-frequency variations. After correcting for ECT drift and other small calibration errors in AVHRR measurements of cloudiness, Jacobowitz et al. (2003) found essentially no trend in cloud cover for the tropics from 1981 to 2000.

While the variability in surface-observed upper-level cloud cover has been shown to be consistent with that observed by ISCCP (Norris, 2005a), the variability in total cloud cover is not, implying differences between ISCCP and surface-observed low cloud cover. Norris (2005a) shows that even after taking into account the difference between surface and satellite views of low-level clouds, the decadal changes between the ISCCP and surface data sets still disagree. The extent to which this results from differences in spatial and temporal sampling or differences in viewing perspective is unclear.

In summary, while there is some consistency between ISCCP, ERBS, SAGE II and surface observations of a reduction in high cloud cover during the 1990s relative to the 1980s, there are substantial uncertainties in decadal trends in all data sets and at present there is no clear consensus on changes in total cloudiness over decadal time scales.