Academic Minute
3:12 pm
Thu June 23, 2011

Dr. James Schwab, The University at Albany - Understanding Clouds

Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. James Schwab of the University at Albany discusses the complexity and mysteries of cloud formation.

James Schwab is Senior Research Associate at the University at Albany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He holds a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in chemical physics from Harvard University. His work has been featured in more than 30 peer-reviewed journals and focuses on the areas of gas phase spectroscopy and chemical kinetics, gas phase free radical chemistry, stratospheric ozone depletion, instrument development and evaluation, tropospheric chemistry, and air pollution chemistry.

About Dr. Schwab

Dr. James Schwab - Understanding Clouds

"I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down and still somehow

It's clouds' illusions I recall

I really don't know clouds at all"

These are wonderful lyrics from Joni Mitchell's classic song "Both Sides Now", in which she contrasts the stunning visual beauty of clouds with the realization that they also block the sun and bring rain and snow. To an atmospheric scientist however, the line "I really don't know clouds at all" has a different and deeper meaning.

Clouds are in many ways our visual link to the atmosphere. We can see clouds even though we can't see the air around them. We have an intuitive understanding that different types of clouds portend different weather. Dark, heavy cumulonimbus tell us that a brief, but possibly heavy thundershower is likely; while scattered and wispy high altitude cirrus clouds tend to be a signal of fair weather. As we study the atmosphere and its interactions, we find out that in addition to the obvious weather implications, clouds play important roles in the production of acid rain, the processing of chemical emissions, and the heating of the earth by the sun. We know in basic terms what is needed to form a cloud, but since processes on every scale are involved - from molecular to continental and even global - the role of clouds in air pollution and global warming remains a major area of research and study.

The beauty of clouds is in no way diminished by the fact that they continue to provide illusions and puzzles for artists and scientists alike!

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