Workshop: Machine Learning and the Physical Sciences

Insight into cloud processes from unsupervised classification with a rotation-invariant autoencoder

Takuya Kurihana · James Franke · Ian Foster · Ziwei Wang · Elisabeth Moyer


Clouds play a critical role in the Earth’s energy budget and their potential changes are one of the largest uncertainties in future climate projections. However, the use of satellite observations to understand cloud feedbacks in a warming climate has been hampered by the simplicity of existing cloud classification schemes, which are based on single-pixel cloud properties rather than utilizing spatial structures and textures. Recent advances in computer vision enable the grouping of different patterns of images without using human-predefined labels, providing a novel means of automated cloud classification. This unsupervised learning approach allows discovery of unknown climate-relevant cloud patterns, and the automated processing of large datasets. We describe here the use of such methods to generate a new AI-driven Cloud Classification Atlas (AICCA), which leverages 22 years and 800 terabytes of MODIS satellite observations over the global ocean. We use a rotation-invariant cloud clustering (RICC) method to classify those observations into 42 AI-generated cloud class labels at ~ 100 km spatial resolution. As a case study, we use AICCA to examine a recent finding of decreasing cloudiness in a critical part of the subtropical stratocumulus deck, and show that the change is accompanied by strong trends in cloud classes.

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