Switching cloud cover and dynamical regimes from open to closed Benard cells in response to the suppression of precipitation by aerosols
1Institute of Earth Sciences, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem 91904, Israel
2NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD 20771, USA
3Department of Environmental Sciences, Weizmann Institute, Rehovot 76100, Israel
Abstract. The dynamic structure of the weakly sheared atmospheric marine boundary layer (MBL) supports three distinct states of cloud cover, which are associated with the concentrations of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) aerosols in the MBL: (i) CCN rich MBL with closed Benard cellular convection that forms nearly full cloud cover; (ii) CCN depleted MBL with open cellular convection that forms <40% cloud cover; and, (iii) CCN starved MBL where clouds cannot form due to insufficient CCN, with near zero cloud cover. Here we propose a mechanism for the transition between these three states that involves the aerosol impacts on precipitation and the feedbacks on the dynamics of the clouds and on the aerosols deposition. By suppressing precipitation aerosols can reverse the direction of the airflow, converting the cloud structure from open to closed cells and more than doubling the cloud cover. The three states possess positive feedbacks for self maintenance, so that small changes of the conditions can lead to bifurcation of the MBL cloud regime. The transition between the closed and open cells occur at near pristine background level of aerosols, creating a large sensitivity of cloud radiative forcing to very small changes in aerosols at the MBL. The third state of super clean air can occur as the more efficient precipitation in cleaner air deposits the aerosols ever faster in a runaway positive feedback process. The proposed mechanism suggests that very small changes in the aerosols input to the MBL can have large impacts on the oceanic cloud cover and likely in turn on the global temperature, in ways that are not yet accounted for in the climate models.