Unexpected changes in Earth's climate observed on the dark side of the moon

Scientists who monitor Earth's reflectance by measuring the moon's earthshine have observed unexpectedly large climate fluctuations during the past two decades. By combining eight years of earthshine data with nearly twenty years of partially overlapping satellite cloud data, they have found a gradual decline in the Earth's reflectance that became sharper in the last part of the 1990's, perhaps associated with the accelerated global warming in recent years. Surprisingly, the declining reflectance reversed completely in the past three years. Such changes, which are not understood, seem to be a natural variability of the Earth's clouds.

The May 28, 2004 issue of the journal Science examines the phenomenon in an article, "Changes in Earth's Reflectance Over the Past Two Decades" written by Enric Palle, Philip R. Goode, Pilar Montanes-Rodriguez and Steven E. Koonin. Goode, principal investigator, is distinguished professor of physics at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Palle and Montanes-Rodriguez are postdoctoral associates at that institution, and Koonin is professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. The observations were conducted at Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) in California, which NJIT has operated since 1997 with Goode as its director. The National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) funded these observations.

The team has revived and modernized an old method of determining the Earth's reflectance, or albedo, by observing earthshine (ES), sunlight reflected by the Earth that can be seen as a ghostly glow of the moon's "dark side"- or the portion of the lunar disk not lit by the Sun. As Koonin realized some 14 years ago, such observations can be a powerful tool for long-term climate monitoring. "The cloudier the Earth, the brighter the earthshine, and changing cloud cover is an important element of changing climate," he said.

Precision earthshine observations to determine global reflectivi

Contact: Sheryl Weinstein
New Jersey Institute of Technology

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