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A View of Earth's Aerosol System from Space to Your Office Chair

By Peter Colarco


Aerosols are tiny particles and droplets suspended in the air. Each day you breathe in about 10 billion of them, about a half a million per breath. They are formed in nature by volcanoes, dust storms, sea spray, and emissions from vegetation. Humans create aerosols and alter their natural sources by burning fossil fuels and modifying land cover. Fires are another important source of aerosols; some are natural, such as wildfires started by lightning strikes, while others are from human-caused burning of vegetation for cooking, heating, and land clearing. Aerosols have complex effects on Earth's climate. In general, they cool the surface by reflecting (scattering) radiation from the sun back into space. Dust and smoke absorb solar radiation and heat the atmosphere where they are concentrated. Aerosols change the properties of clouds. Indeed, it would be very difficult to form clouds in the atmosphere without aerosols to act as 'seeds' for water to condense on. In aerosol polluted environments clouds tend to have smaller droplets than clouds formed in cleaner environments; these polluted clouds appear brighter from space because they reflect more sunlight, and they may persist longer and not rain as intensely. Aerosols also affect local air quality and visibility. Data collected by NASA satellites over the past decade have provided an unprecedented view of Earth's aerosol distribution and dramatically increased our understanding of where aerosols come from and just how far they travel in the atmosphere. In this talk I will discuss observations of aerosols from space and how they inform numerical transport models attempting to simulate the global aerosol system

Topics: Geophysics
Year: 2008
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