Articles | Volume 7, issue 1
04 Mar 2011
 | 04 Mar 2011

Clouds and the Faint Young Sun Paradox

C. Goldblatt and K. J. Zahnle

Abstract. We investigate the role which clouds could play in resolving the Faint Young Sun Paradox (FYSP). Lower solar luminosity in the past means that less energy was absorbed on Earth (a forcing of −50 W m−2 during the late Archean), but geological evidence points to the Earth having been at least as warm as it is today, with only very occasional glaciations. We perform radiative calculations on a single global mean atmospheric column. We select a nominal set of three layered, randomly overlapping clouds, which are both consistent with observed cloud climatologies and reproduced the observed global mean energy budget of Earth. By varying the fraction, thickness, height and particle size of these clouds we conduct a wide exploration of how changed clouds could affect climate, thus constraining how clouds could contribute to resolving the FYSP. Low clouds reflect sunlight but have little greenhouse effect. Removing them entirely gives a forcing of +25 W m−2 whilst more modest reduction in their efficacy gives a forcing of +10 to +15 W m−2. For high clouds, the greenhouse effect dominates. It is possible to generate +50 W m−2 forcing from enhancing these, but this requires making them 3.5 times thicker and 14 K colder than the standard high cloud in our nominal set and expanding their coverage to 100% of the sky. Such changes are not credible. More plausible changes would generate no more than +15 W m−2 forcing. Thus neither fewer low clouds nor more high clouds can provide enough forcing to resolve the FYSP. Decreased surface albedo can contribute no more than +5 W m−2 forcing. Some models which have been applied to the FYSP do not include clouds at all. These overestimate the forcing due to increased CO2 by 20 to 25% when pCO2 is 0.01 to 0.1 bar.