Reconciling Observations of Solar Irradiance Variability With Cloud Size Distributions

Mol, Wouter B.; Stratum, Bart J.H. van; Knap, Wouter H.; Heerwaarden, Chiel C. van


Clouds cast shadows on the surface and locally enhance solar irradiance by absorbing and scattering sunlight, resulting in fast and large solar irradiance fluctuations on the surface. Typical spatiotemporal scales and driving mechanisms of this intra-day irradiance variability are not well known, hence even 1 day ahead forecasts of variability are inaccurate. Here, we use long-term, high-frequency solar irradiance observations combined with satellite imagery, numerical simulations, and conceptual modeling to show how irradiance variability is linked to the cloud size distribution. Cloud shadow sizes are distributed according to a power law over multiple orders of magnitude, deviating only from the cloud size distribution due to cloud edge transparency at scales below ≈750 m. Locally cloud-enhanced irradiance occurs as frequently as shadows, and is similarly driven mostly by boundary layer clouds, but distributed over a smaller range of scales. We reconcile studies of solar irradiance variability with those on clouds, which brings fundamental understanding to what drives irradiance variability. Our findings have implications not only for weather and climate modeling, but also for solar energy and photosynthesis by vegetation, where detailed knowledge of surface solar irradiance is essential.