Looking at Clouds in the Sky is More Complex Than You Think

The Royal Society of Victoria annually awards four competitive prizes to final year PhD students in all areas of the Biomedical & Health Sciences, Biological Sciences (Non-human), Earth Sciences, and Physical Sciences. In September 2023, we heard from this year’s eight finalists about their brilliant work in these fields. Over the coming months, they will share a written summary of their presentations in Science Victoria.

For more information about the RSV’s Young Scientist Research Prize, visit rsv.org.au/young-scientist-research-prizes

Storm clouds over the Southern Ocean
Stormy gray skies above the Southern Ocean. Photo: knelson20, via Shutterstock

Looking at Clouds in the Sky is More Complex Than You Think

By Estefania Montoya Duque MRSV

2023 RSV Young Scientist Research Prizes (Earth Sciences) – 2nd Place

Have you ever caught yourself looking at the sky trying to figure out the cloud shapes? Look there! A hippo… oh that one! A wombat. I always enjoyed looking at the clouds from my home in Medellín, Colombia. While my head was in the clouds, my thoughts started evolving, until I decided to go far away from the Andes and come to Melbourne to study clouds over the Southern Ocean. Since then, I’ve been learning about clouds in this amazing, yet challenging, region and how they vary upon weather patterns.

It’s all about baking the perfect cake

You’ve probably noticed there are days in Melbourne when rain comes and goes every hour. On those days, it almost feels like you have all four seasons in one day. Other times, the rain seems to persist for days. All these patterns are related to weather conditions that move from west to east and, to some extent, also from the Southern Ocean to Australia. Each weather condition pattern is characterised by different wind, pressure, temperature, and relative humidity. These variables control cloud formation, and are the reason we might see four seasons in one day. Just like following a recipe, depending on the amount of ingredients you put in, the flavours and forms of your final cake will be different.

Estefania Montoya Duque presenting to the RSV, September 2023. Photograph: Karey Shandler, Verse Photography

Imagine you’re a baker who’s been asked to bake a cake.

Depending on the event (weather pattern), you will need to prepare a different type of cake. 

Initially, in my research I had to identify the differences between the cakes. For example, I found that clouds formed behind a cold front are shallow (cupcakes), rarely precipitating, with a high concentration of liquid droplets and ice (chocolate chips).

But these shallow clouds behind cold fronts are a hard cake to bake since they are small, and the smallest bake pan you have is a 10 cm round one – much too big for a cupcake. In addition, it is challenging to understand their ice production as they need to produce just the right amount of ice at a temperature where you would expect the ice to melt. Imagine your cupcakes need a certain number of chocolate chips to not melt, but you are putting them into an oven, where they likely will melt. 

Multilayer clouds are different again – like wedding cakes, with cloud tops as high as 6 km. Satellites usually have difficulties in representing precipitation in these clouds. Multilayer clouds typically precipitate heavily in the tropics, but over the Southern Ocean, the precipitation is significantly less intense, and these differences are difficult to include in satellite algorithms. These challenges are still not fully solved in our models, leading to a chain reaction in which our modelling of other weather variables is affected.

We are also working on finding out how to ‘bake cupcakes’ – determine whether the oven temperature (sea surface temperature), how much baking powder (buoyancy) or chocolate (ice content) you need in the batter, and how important they are in making the perfect cupcake.

Reading clouds is like learning to bake: it takes a lot of trial and error. However, I have found that understanding your ingredients (which ones, how much and in what combination), and having the right tools available (cupcake tins) can go a long way to making the perfect, puffy cloud/cupcake. 

Video Presentation: Estefania Montoya Duque, “Unravelling the Mysteries of Clouds over the Southern Ocean”

Read more from the finalists of the 2023 RSV Young Scientist Research Prizes:
Gusts in the Headwind, by Dr Grace Lawrence MRSV

Looking at Clouds in the Sky is More Complex Than You Think, by Estefania Montoya Duque MRSV
Getting Back on Track, by Sarah Mele MRSV
Harnessing Immune Cells in the Bowel to Fight Cancer, by Marina Yakou MRSV
The Lighter Side of Building Bionic Eyes, by William Kwan MRSV
Where Do We Come From, and When?, by Dr Wenjing Yu MRSV
How Fire Shapes Plant Life Cycles, By Ella Plumanns Pouton MRSV