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August 16, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Cloud Talk

It seems almost every day science discovers a new level of communication, teamwork and societal hierarchy where none was thought to previously exist. Communication is defined as a message with a sender and an intended recipient; and there must be a communicative commonality. Whales and dolphins come immediately to mind. Wolves and apes have this highly evolved ability, too. Working down the evolution chain, communication between plants has been detected. In addition, the term mutualism describes communication between species (one species of monkey sets off an alarm signal due to the presence of a predator, causing other species to react to the alarm, as well).

I believe it. Though communication levels seem to decrease between husbands and wives (I’ve been married 26 years), I believe there are things yet to be discovered about communication amongst and between the species that will continue to amaze us for many years to come. I think that levels of communication will be discovered where none were thought to exist previously. But I draw the line at communication between clouds.

In a paper published last week, authored by Graham Feingold of NOAA, a new study reveals clouds communicate much like chirping crickets or flashing fireflies.

What are these clouds saying to each other?Image: Wikipedia

I’m not one to argue with experts or take on seemingly existential questions such as, “What is communication?” I’m an Air Force-trained meteorologist whose specialty is short-term forecasts for operational purposes. I have a decent understanding of the atmosphere. I also understand that certain processes bring about certain other processes. For instance, a river running quickly will erode a bankside. Is this communication between river and bankside? Or is it the action of one causing the reaction of another (Newton’s Third Law)?

We do not live in a vacuum. Every molecule reacts with every other molecule. What is communication, what is physics? Sometimes, isn’t physics just physics and not necessarily communication?

I agree with Mr. Feingold: Clouds form, clouds dissipate, air rushes up and down with the various stages of cloud development. These air currents interact with other air currents and form other clouds; cloud and rain patterns develop. But, with the basic definition of communication as a guide, who/what is the intended recipient of the communication if the intended has yet to be created?

Ahh, but that’s where it gets cloudy (sorry) because to communicate the receiver does not need to be aware of the sender’s intent or to even be present to receive the message. I can’t help but think of the messages we have sent into deep space to far off galaxies in the hope that the messages will be received. What if the act of communication itself causes the receiver to be created? Could a current of air (the message) interact with other currents of air (the communication) and in the process create the receiver (the other clouds)? Is this communication between clouds? I think Mr. Feingold says it is.

If my wife yells at me for not taking out the trash and I’m not at home, do I hear it?


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