Remote Sensing of Crystal Shapes in Ice Clouds

  • Bastiaan van DiedenhovenEmail author
Part of the Springer Series in Light Scattering book series (SSLS)


Ice crystals in clouds exist in a virtually limitless variation of geometries. The most basic shapes of ice crystals are columnar or plate-like hexagonal prisms with aspect ratios determined by relative humidity and temperature. However, crystals in ice clouds generally display more complex structures owing to aggregation, riming and growth histories through varying temperature and humidity regimes. Crystal shape is relevant for cloud evolution as it affects microphysical properties such as fall speeds and aggregation efficiency. Furthermore, the scattering properties of ice crystals are affected by their general shape, as well as by microscopic features such as surface roughness, impurities and internal structure. To improve the representation of ice clouds in climate models, increased understanding of the global variation of crystal shape and how it relates to, e.g., location, cloud temperature and atmospheric state is crucial. Here, the remote sensing of ice crystal macroscale and microscale structure from airborne and space-based lidar depolarization observations and multi-directional measurements of total and polarized reflectances is reviewed. In addition, a brief overview is given of in situ and laboratory observations of ice crystal shape as well as the optical properties of ice crystals that serve as foundations for the remote sensing approaches. Lidar depolarization is generally found to increase with increasing cloud height and to vary with latitude. Although this variation is generally linked to the variation of ice crystal shape, the interpretation of the depolarization remains largely qualitative and more research is needed before quantitative conclusions about ice shape can be deduced. The angular variation of total and polarized reflectances of ice clouds has been analyzed by numerous studies in order to infer information about ice crystal shapes from them. From these studies it is apparent that pristine crystals with smooth surfaces are generally inconsistent with the data and thus crystal impurity, distortion or surface roughness is prevalent. However, conclusions about the dominating ice shapes are often inconclusive and contradictory and are highly dependent on the limited selection of shapes included in the investigations. Since ice crystal optical properties are mostly determined by the aspect ratios of the crystal components and their microscale structure, it is advised that remote sensing applications focus on the variation of these ice shape characteristics, rather than on the macroscale shape or habit. Recent studies use databases with nearly continuous ranges of crystal component aspect ratio and/or roughness levels to infer the variation of ice crystal shape from satellite and airborne remote sensing measurements. Here, the rationale and results of varying strategies for the remote sensing of ice crystal shape are reviewed. Observed systematic variations of ice crystal geometry with location, cloud height and atmospheric state suggested by the data are discussed. Finally, a prospective is given on the future of the remote sensing of ice cloud particle shapes.



Bastiaan van Diedenhoven is supported by NASA under project numbers NNX14AJ28G and NNX15AD44G. I would like to thank Dr. Nathan Magee at The College of New Jersey for providing the electron microscope images of hexagonal ice crystals images. I am grateful to Dr. Ping Yang for providing the optical properties of complex ice crystals.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Climate System ResearchColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.NASA Goddard Institute for Space StudiesNew YorkUSA

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