Sulfate Aerosols: Global Cooling

Aerosols May Drive a Significant Portion of Arctic Warming. ‘Though greenhouse gases are invariably at the center of discussions about global climate change, new NASA research suggests that much of the atmospheric warming observed in the Arctic since 1976 may be due to changes in tiny airborne particles called aerosols.

Emitted by natural and human sources, aerosols can directly influence climate by reflecting or absorbing the sun’s radiation. The small particles also affect climate indirectly by seeding clouds and changing cloud properties, such as reflectivity.

A new study, led by climate scientist Drew Shindell of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, used a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to investigate how sensitive different regional climates are to changes in levels of carbon dioxide, ozone, and aerosols.

The researchers found that the mid and high latitudes are especially responsive to changes in the level of aerosols. Indeed, the model suggests aerosols likely account for 45 percent or more of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last three decades. The results were published in the April issue of Nature Geoscience.

Though there are several varieties of aerosols, previous research has shown that two types — sulfates and black carbon – play an especially critical role in regulating climate change. Both are products of human activity.

Sulfates, which come primarily from the burning of coal and oil, scatter incoming solar radiation and have a net cooling effect on climate. Over the past three decades, the United States and European countries have passed a series of laws that have reduced sulfate emissions by 50 percent. While improving air quality and aiding public health, the result has been less atmospheric cooling from sulfates.

At the same time, black carbon emissions have steadily risen, largely because of increasing emissions from Asia. Black carbon – small, soot-like particles produced by industrial processes and the combustion of diesel and biofuels – absorb incoming solar radiation and have a strong warming influence on the atmosphere.’

Nasa Earth Observatory Fact Sheet: What are Aerosols?. ‘Aerosols are tiny particles suspended in the air. Some occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and the alteration of natural surface cover, also generate aerosols. Averaged over the globe, aerosols made by human activities currently account for about 10 percent of the total amount of aerosols in our atmosphere. Most of that 10 percent is concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, especially downwind of industrial sites, slash-and-burn agricultural regions, and overgrazed grasslands.’

Wikipedia: Stratospheric Sulfur Aerosols.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Visualizations: Sulfate Aerosol Evolution and Greenhouse Gases and Sulfate Aerosols.

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