Gazing up at the sky, we often find ourselves captivated by the ethereal beauty of clouds, those transient sculptures painted against the canvas of the atmosphere. However, beyond their aesthetic appeal, clouds play a pivotal role in the intricate ballet of our planet’s climate.

In a groundbreaking study led by atmospheric researcher Lubna Dada and her team at the Paul Scherrer Institute, we embark on a journey through time and climate, seeking to unravel the mysteries of cloud formation and its profound impact on our world. This expedition goes beyond the superficial, venturing into the realms of trees, aerosols, and the delicate dance between nature and climate. Join us as we explore this scientific odyssey, one that not only peers into the past but also strives to fortify predictions about the future.

Clouds and Their Impact:

Clouds, those ephemeral formations drifting high above, wield a significant influence on our planet’s climate. Acting as both guardians and blankets, they regulate the Earth’s temperature in a delicate balance. Some clouds act as shields, protecting us from the harsh rays of solar radiation, while others serve as blankets, trapping heat within the atmosphere. To predict future climate changes accurately, scientists must unravel the nuances of cloud formation and comprehend the diverse effects these formations can have on our climate.

The study conducted by Lubna Dada and her team at the Paul Scherrer Institute delves into the intricate relationship between trees, aerosols, and cloud formation. Their research, recently published in the journal Science Advances, focuses on understanding the role of trees and the natural compounds they release into the atmosphere in cloud formation. The ultimate goal? To precisely grasp the state of the climate before the Industrial Revolution and discern the transformations that have occurred since.

Current Climate Models and Their Gaps:

Despite the remarkable progress made in climate science, clouds remain enigmatic entities in many climate models. The warming and cooling effects of clouds, along with the role of aerosols in their formation, present substantial uncertainties in climate predictions. Lubna Dada emphasizes the pressing need to bridge this gap and enhance the accuracy of climate models for a more resilient future.

Clouds, it seems, are the biggest uncertainty in climate science today. Many current climate models fail to account for the nuanced effects of clouds on temperature regulation. The dichotomy between warming and cooling effects, coupled with the role of aerosols, creates a complex puzzle that scientists are diligently working to solve. Lubna Dada’s research is a beacon in this endeavor, shedding light on the intricate interplay of natural compounds, aerosols, and cloud formation.

The Architects of Clouds:

The magical transformation of water vapor into clouds begins when plants emit gases that form aerosol particles. These particles, suspended in the atmosphere, serve as the building blocks for clouds. Whether originating from human pollution, sea spray, or dust, understanding the origin of these aerosols is crucial to demystifying cloud formation.

“Just think about the process of water condensing on your window when you cook,” Dada explains. “These aerosols are acting just like your window. So they form and then they act like a surface, which can take in more gases to grow to form this cloud.” This analogy simplifies the intricate process occurring in our atmosphere, highlighting the vital role played by aerosols in the formation of clouds.

The CLOUD Chamber at Work:

To comprehend preindustrial cloud cover, Dada and her team utilize a sophisticated cylindrical chamber at CERN in Switzerland. This technological marvel simulates atmospheric conditions, allowing scientists to manipulate humidity, temperature, and vapor concentrations. By replicating different geographic locations, the researchers aim to reconstruct the cloud behavior of the past.

The CLOUD chamber stands as a testament to human ingenuity, providing a controlled environment where scientists can observe and manipulate atmospheric conditions. Covered in tape resembling aluminum foil, the chamber is equipped with lights that simulate different layers of the atmosphere. This allows researchers to recreate specific geographic locations and study the effects of various conditions on cloud formation.

The Overlooked Players in Cloud Formation:

In their relentless quest for knowledge, the CLOUD project unearthed a fascinating revelation the role of sesquiterpenes. Often overshadowed by their counterparts, monoterpenes, and isoprene, sesquiterpenes were found to be the unsung heroes, forming ten times more particles in the CLOUD chamber. This discovery sheds light on the importance of considering all compounds to accurately depict the preindustrial climate.

Sesquiterpenes, it turns out, are released by plants when they experience stress. This finding adds a layer of complexity to the narrative, suggesting that as vegetation is exposed to more extreme weather conditions, the significance of these compounds in cloud formation grows. The CLOUD project’s meticulous examination of sesquiterpenes contributes valuable insights to our understanding of the preindustrial climate and the subsequent alterations made by human activities.

Integrating Natural Emissions into Climate Models:

As climate conditions become more extreme, the significance of sesquiterpenes grows. Incorporating these compounds into climate predictions enables scientists to better understand the alterations humans have made to the preindustrial baseline. By factoring in these aerosols, we gain a more nuanced understanding of the future climate.

The ability to predict future climate changes hinges on a comprehensive understanding of the past. Dada emphasizes that before scientists can incorporate clouds into climate models and make accurate predictions, they need to understand how clouds behaved before the Industrial Revolution. “We don’t know how much humans contributed to the change of the background cloud conditions,” Dada says. “We need to know what the background was … so that we can form this baseline where we can add this contribution of anthropogenic emissions.”


In our pursuit of unraveling the secrets of clouds, we find ourselves on the cusp of a scientific revolution. Lubna Dada and her team’s meticulous research not only enlightens us about the past but also equips us to face the challenges of the future. As we peer into the ever-shifting tapestry of clouds, we gain insights that may well redefine the trajectory of climate science. The journey continues, and with each revelation, we come closer to a future where the whispers of clouds no longer hold secrets. The symphony of atmospheric elements plays on, and we, as stewards of this planet, are better poised to decipher its melodies.