November 3, 2014


"Horizontally oriented plates in clouds"

by Bréon F.M. and B. Dubrulle
in J. Atmospheric Sciences, 61,2888-2898

Horizontally oriented plates in clouds generate a sharp specular reflectance signal in the glint direction, often referred to as "subsun". This signal (amplitude and width) may be used to analyze the relative area fraction of oriented plates in the cloud top layer and their characteristic tilt angle to the horizontal. We make use of spaceborne measurements from the POLDER instrument to provide a statistical analysis of these parameters. More than half of the clouds show a detectable maximum reflectance in the glint direction, although this maximum may be rather faint. The typical effective fraction (area weighted) of oriented plates in clouds lies between 10-³ and 10-². For those oriented plates, the characteristic tilt angle is less than 1 degree in most cases. These low fractions imply that the impact of oriented plates on the cloud albedo is insignificant. The largest proportion of clouds with horizontally oriented plates is found in the range 500-700 hPa, in agreement with typical in situ observation of plates in clouds.
We propose a simple aerodynamic model that accounts for the orienting torque of the flow as the plate falls under its own gravity and the disorienting effects of Brownian motion and atmospheric turbulence. The model indicates that the horizontal plate diameters are in the range 0.1 to a few millimeters. For such sizes, Brownian forces have a negligible impact on the plate orientation. On the other hand, typical levels of atmospheric turbulence lead to tilt angles that are similar to those estimated from the glint observation.