Researchers have embarked on a flight campaign over the Labrador Sea to study how clouds form and develop in cold air.

The four-week campaign will deploy the FAAM Airborne Laboratory to look specifically at mixed phase clouds – clouds that contain a mixture of ice and water particles.

The team will combine measurements of cloud properties, weather, and airborne particles using a unique set of instrumentation fitted to the aircraft, to help unpick the nuances of how mixed phase clouds will respond to climate change.

At the moment, scientists are uncertain exactly how mixed phase clouds will respond to climate changes such as rising sea surface temperatures and atmospheric aerosols.

Clouds form over a snowy forest landscape with a road running through

If the ratio of water and ice particles in these clouds changes, we would expect to see a knock-on effect for our climate, but it’s uncertain whether this would warm or cool our atmosphere.

Warmer temperatures may lead to more water in mixed-phase clouds, meaning they will reflect more solar radiation, causing a cooling effect on our climate.

However, the picture is complicated by the role of aerosols – tiny particles suspended in our atmosphere such as mineral dust and biological material.

Warmer temperatures, hand in hand with deforestation, fossil fuel burning and industrial activity, may cause a rise in a special type of aerosol particles, known as ice nucleating particles. 

These particles trigger ice formation by providing a platform for ice crystals to grow on – and that may cause the Earth to warm faster by reducing the reflectivity of clouds.

The collaborative research effort, known as M-Phase, will bring together scientists at the University of Leeds, University of Manchester and University of British Columbia, and is part of a larger ambition to reduce the uncertainty in climate predictions due to clouds.

Throughout October, researchers will take flight from Goose Bay on Canada’s east coast, attempting to pin-point cold air outbreaks over the Labrador Sea, a frequent source of mixed-phase clouds.

“The Labrador Sea is a unique place for cloud formation,” explains lead researcher Professor Benjamin Murray from the University of Leeds.

“Clouds over the Labrador Sea form with air that has travelled across the archipelago in northern Canada – a source of dust,” says Professor Murray.

“We think the dust may lead to ice production in these clouds, but there are very few measurements of dust or clouds over the Labrador Sea, so we’re excited to see what is really happening in the atmosphere,” adds Professor Murrary.

Onboard the specially-equipped FAAM Airborne Laboratory, the research team will fly two mission types.

The first will involve profiling low-level stratus and small cumulus clouds, while the second aims to profile upstream stratus clouds near Baffin Island.

The aircraft, according to Professor Murray, is likely the best aircraft for looking at interactions between aerosols and clouds anywhere in the world.

“The FAAM Airborne Laboratory is wonderful. The team are experts in what they do, and come hand-in-hand with a set of scientific instrumentation that can study both aerosols and clouds,” says Professor Murray.

The campaign, a partnership between University of Leeds, University of Manchester and Met Office, will help scientists to improve their physical understanding of clouds, and ultimately feed into more realistic climate and weather models, which underpin decision-making by governments and businesses.