Remote Sensing of Droplet Number Concentration in Warm Clouds: A Review of the Current State of Knowledge and Perspectives
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Remote Sensing of Droplet Number Concentration in Warm Clouds: A Review of the Current State of Knowledge and Perspectives
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    Reviews of Geophysics, 56(2), 409-453.
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Remote Sensing of Droplet Number Concentration in Warm Clouds: A Review of the Current State of Knowledge and Perspectives
  • Description:
    The cloud droplet number concentration (N-d) is of central interest to improve the understanding of cloud physics and for quantifying the effective radiative forcing by aerosol-cloud interactions. Current standard satellite retrievals do not operationally provide N-d, but it can be inferred from retrievals of cloud optical depth ((c)) cloud droplet effective radius (r(e)) and cloud top temperature. This review summarizes issues with this approach and quantifies uncertainties. A total relative uncertainty of 78% is inferred for pixel-level retrievals for relatively homogeneous, optically thick and unobscured stratiform clouds with favorable viewing geometry. The uncertainty is even greater if these conditions are not met. For averages over 1 degrees x1 degrees regions the uncertainty is reduced to 54% assuming random errors for instrument uncertainties. In contrast, the few evaluation studies against reference in situ observations suggest much better accuracy with little variability in the bias. More such studies are required for a better error characterization. N-d uncertainty is dominated by errors in r(e), and therefore, improvements in r(e) retrievals would greatly improve the quality of the N-d retrievals. Recommendations are made for how this might be achieved. Some existing N-d data sets are compared and discussed, and best practices for the use of N-d data from current passive instruments (e.g., filtering criteria) are recommended. Emerging alternative N-d estimates are also considered. First, new ideas to use additional information from existing and upcoming spaceborne instruments are discussed, and second, approaches using high-quality ground-based observations are examined. Plain Language Summary Clouds have a very large influence on weather and climate. It is thus a prime task for satellite- and ground-based observations to measure clouds. For satellites and many other instruments this is done by remote sensingradiation is measured, and knowledge about clouds is inferred. Liquid water clouds consist of numerous droplets of order of 10m in size. A key quantity that describes clouds is the number of droplets in a given volume or the droplet number concentration. However, satellite observations of droplet number concentration are only emerging, and the quality of these observations is poorly known. This review fulfills two tasks, namely, (1) to quantify how uncertain the current way to observe droplet number concentrations from satellite is and (2) to propose ways toward better approaches. It is concluded that the current way to obtain cloud droplet number concentration works for homogeneous stratus and stratocumulus clouds, with, however, a substantial error of around 50%. For cumulus clouds the observations are substantially worse. New avenues that are proposed for a better estimate of cloud droplet concentration exploit instruments that emit light (lidar) or microwaves (radar), and measure the reflected signal, or explore the polarization of light induced by clouds.
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