Atmospheric researchers have provided observational evidence that burning fossil fuels has a direct impact on the solar radiation reflectivity of clouds, thereby contributing to global climate change.
Joyce Penner, professor in the University of Michigan Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, U-M graduate student Yang Chen, and assistant professor Xiquan Dong from the University of North Dakota Department of Atmospheric Science, reported their findings in the Jan. 15 issue of the journal Nature.
Most evidence that increased levels of fossil fuel particles (aerosols) affects the reflectivity of clouds, thereby producing a cooling effect on the climate, has been indirect. "This made it difficult to determine the impact this phenomena, known as the indirect aerosol effect, has on the global climate," Penner said. "Our data makes the direct connection and opens new areas of study."
Solar radiation, which adds to global warming, is reflected back into space by clouds. Cloud droplets are increased with higher levels of aerosols, allowing for less radiation, or heat, to reach the lower atmosphere. The end result is a measurable cooling effect on the climate.
Using atmospheric data gathered from a site in Oklahoma, a typical continental site with a high concentration of aerosols, and a typical Arctic site in Barrow Alaska with low aerosol concentration, the researchers were able to show that the difference in cloud reflectivity at the two sites was caused by the difference in aerosol levels. The researchers also provided important evidence that the computer simulation model used in the study was capable of estimating cloud optical properties determined over a broad range of aerosol concentrations.
"This study is important for two reasons," Penner said. "First, it provides evidence that there is some cooling of the climate due to anthropogenic aerosols. Second, the simulation model we used has been shown to be a valuable tool in determining more directly the impact of aerosols on the climate."
Penner cautioned that over longer time scales in the future, the climate cooling due to the indirect aerosol effect will be minimal when compared to the climate warming of carbon dioxide. "We've shown that there's more work to be done to discover all of the various ways we affect the climate."
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