A Cloud Atlas Provides Clues to Life on Earth

  • 2016-04-21
  • The New York Times

After countless years of daydreamers being told otherwise, there’s now a good reason to keep your head in the clouds. Scientists combed through satellite photographs of cloud cover taken twice a day for 15 years from nearly every square kilometer of Earth to study the planet’s varied environments.

By creating cloud atlases, the researchers were able to better predict the location of plants and animals on land with unprecedented spatial resolution, allowing them to study certain species, including those that are often in remote places. The results were published last week in PLOS Biology.

Clouds directly affect local climates, causing differences in soil moisture and available sunlight that drive photosynthesis and ecosystem productivity.

The researchers demonstrated the potential for modeling species distribution by studying the Montane woodcreeper, a South American bird, and the King Protea, a South African shrub.

“In thinking about conserving biodiversity, one of the most important scientific questions is ‘Where are the species?’” said Adam Wilson, an ecologist now at the University at Buffalo, who led the study. The maps also could help monitor ecosystem changes.