Public Release: 

Laser-brightened cirrus clouds

Helmholtz Association


IMAGE: At the AIDA facility on KIT's Campus North, researchers investigate aerosol and cloud processes under atmospheric conditions. view more

Credit: (Photo: Markus Breig, KIT)

This news release is available in German.

Can cloud formation, precipitation or thunderstorms be influenced by laser light irradiation? This issue has been investigated by researchers from KIT's Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research - Atmospheric Aerosol Research (IMK-AAF), Freie Universität Berlin, and the University of Geneva. The objective of the studies conducted by head of IMK-AAF Professor Thomas Leisner was to find out whether and in how far laser light and plasma can influence cloud formation.

For their investigations, the researchers used the facility AIDA (Aerosol Interactions and Dynamics in the Atmosphere) on KIT's Campus North and the mobile laser lab "Teramobile" developed in Geneva and Berlin. AIDA offers unique possibilities of studying aerosol and cloud processes under atmospheric conditions and can simulate all temperature and pressure conditions occurring in the lower and middle atmosphere.

The "Teramobile" generates high-intensity laser light pulses. Unlike normal laser light, these pulses propagate in a specific way in the atmosphere. "Due to nonlinear optical effects, these laser pulses kind of produce their own light guides, thus remaining sharply focused over long distances even if they would normally be dissipated by airborne particles and atmospheric opacity," explains Professor Thomas Leisner. A current-conducting plasma channel forms as the air gets ionized along the laser beam.

Effects of plasma channels on ice formation or precipitation processes could not be proved in typical storm clouds, where ice crystals and subcooled water droplets coexist. In high cirrus clouds, which consist purely of ice crystals, the researchers, however, came across a surprisingly strong reaction to laser irradiation: As described in PNAS, the laser pulses increase the number of ice particles by up to a factor of 100 within only a few seconds. The fact that, in that way, the optical density of the cirrostratus clouds is intensified by up to three orders of magnitude makes the clouds look much brighter. "The effect exerted on a typical thin sheet of cirrostratus clouds can be imagined to resemble laser-written contrails," Leisner says.

According to Professor Leisner, however, this laser effect on the atmosphere presently can only be applied in scientific cloud research. "Until clouds can be manipulated from the ground," the KIT climate researcher explains "much progress is required in laser technology."


Thomas Leisner, Denis Duft, Ottmar Möhler, Harald Saathoff, Martin Schnaiter, Stefano Henin, Kamil Stelmaszczyk, Massimo Petrarca, Raphaëlle Delagrange, Zuoqiang Hao, Johannes Lüder, Yannick Petit, Philipp Rohwetter, Jérôme Kasparian, Jean-Pierre Wolf, and Ludger Wöste: Laser-induced plasma-cloud interaction and ice multiplication under cirrus cloud conditions. In: PNAS,

The KIT Climate and Environment Center develops strategies and technologies to secure the natural bases of life. For this purpose, 660 employees of 32 institutes produce fundamental and application-oriented knowledge relating to climate and environmental change. It is not only aimed at eliminating the causes of environmental problems, but increasingly at adapting to changed conditions.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is a public corporation according to the legislation of the state of Baden-Württemberg. It fulfills the mission of a university and the mission of a national research center of the Helmholtz Association. Research activities focus on energy, the natural and built environment as well as on society and technology and cover the whole range extending from fundamental aspects to application. With about 9000 employees, including nearly 6000 staff members in the science and education sector, and 24000 students, KIT is one of the biggest research and education institutions in Europe. Work of KIT is based on the knowledge triangle of research, teaching, and innovation.

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