From the harsh weather of climate change to the devastation of wildlife habitats and ecosystems, humans have been changing the earth in a variety of ways. Now that human activity is changing the atmosphere’s composition, even in the most remote places, it may alter when and how clouds form.
According to a news release from The University of Utah, a new study has discovered that new aerosol particles are typically forming on a Colorado peak every other day.
These particles, according to the researchers and their colleagues, are big enough to cause water to condense around them, resulting in the creation of clouds. They are thought to have originated from gases released by power plants nearby Storm Peak Laboratory (SPL), where the study was conducted.
The formation of clouds from aerosol particles shouldn’t be limited to SPL, according to University of Utah atmospheric sciences professor Gannet Hallar.
According to a press release from Hallar, “Just because we only measure there doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all other distant sites in the Intermountain West.”
The research was published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics under the title Seasonal importance of new particle production affects on cloud condensation nuclei at a mountainous location.
It was vital for the scientists to link the increase of aerosols with observations of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) using new statistical techniques in order to precisely simulate the role aerosols and clouds play in climate change.
The precursors of cloud formation are CCN, which are microscopic salt or dirt particles in the air that are roughly one-tenth the diameter of spider web silk. Around them, clouds are created when water vapor condenses.
As there are more aerosols in the atmosphere, more clouds, especially reflective clouds, form, but may new aerosol particles from human-caused emissions that are far smaller than CCN grow to become CCN? According to the press release, neither the solution to this topic nor climate models that incorporate the interaction between clouds and aerosols have been created.
Aerosol can be exposed to a saturated environment using a separate device called a cloud condensation nuclei counter, simulating the condition in which the aerosol will activate as a CCN.
Noah Hirshorn, a recent alumnus of The University of Utah, explained in an email to EcoWatch that by counting the amount of CCN, we may then identify whether or not a particle is behaving as a CCN.
We discovered that the CCN concentration would rise following spring and winter [new particle formation (NPF)] occurrences in comparison to times without NPF, which allowed us to conclude that aerosol from NPF was boosting CCN concentrations.
The temperature of the Earth is greatly influenced by clouds, which also reflect solar radiation and move water. Modeling clouds may improve the accuracy of those used to predict changes in our climate.
Hallar, Hirshorn, and their colleagues studied a 15-year archive of aerosol data at SPL to understand the connection between fresh aerosol particle generation and CCN. The laboratory is situated more than 10,500 feet above sea level in the Steamboat ski resort in Colorado.
According to the press release, the study’s authors said that the laboratory frequently experiences pristine atmospheric conditions as a result of its isolated position.
The situation is different upwind of the laboratory, where several power plants are spewing sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere converts to sulfuric acid, which can condense into particles.
Prior NPF measurements employed three-dimensional charts with continuous measurements of aerosol particle concentrations. Scientists search for patterns in new particle eruptions and persistent particle growth to pinpoint the location of new particle formation.
According to Hirshorn, previous research at Storm Peak Laboratory and other mountaintop locations has used direct measurements of aerosols and direct observation to track the events of aerosol new particle creation. As demonstrated by earlier research, sulfuric acid, which is produced by anthropogenic emissions, is crucial for NPF in the atmosphere.
Throughout the course of our research, we discovered that CCN-relevant NPF episodes tended to occur more frequently in the spring and winter.
Previous studies have shown that sulfuric acid is more prevalent at SPL during these two seasons, which led us to conclude that sulfur dioxide from adjacent power plants is crucial in enabling NPF events to grow to sizes where they can act as cloud condensation nuclei.
Currently, a new system for categorizing NPF occurrences has been developed by Haller, Hirshorn, and their collaborators, including the University of Utah alums Lauren Zuromski and Christopher Rapp. The new method, which is based on statistics and is compatible with manual techniques, has increased the effectiveness and accuracy of the detection of these events.
Using the new methodology, the researchers found that, between 2006 and 2021, NPF episodes occurred at SPL on 50% of the days. The researchers also discovered that during the winter and spring, respectively, the NPF episodes boosted the amount of CCN by a factor of 1.36 and 1.54, respectively.
We observe gases condensing into nanoparticles every other day, and these particles are getting big enough to absorb water and form cloud droplets, according to Hallar in the news release.
This establishes a direct link between a particle production event and the nuclei of cloud condensation. The ability of climate modelers to link one to the other will likely be the main immediate advantage of that. It closes many holes, Hirshorn continued.
The upwind power stations at SPL produced particular atmospheric chemistry, but the researchers speculate that NPF may also be occurring at a similar pace in other remote parts of the world. According to Hirshorn, the group is attempting to use its new statistical technique at mountaintop observatories in Europe and South America.
Many modeling studies indicate that aerosols from NPF will eventually turn into CCN. Moreover, observational research demonstrates that aerosols can grow to CCN-relevant proportions in a variety of global locales. According to Hirshorn, who spoke to EcoWatch, “Our study is unusual because we were able to follow aerosol particles from NPF and watch them activating as CCN, not only attaining CCN-relevant sizes.”
The Wasatch Front in Utah, where The University of Utah is situated, experiences temperature inversion episodes in the winter, which alter the atmospheric chemistry and worsen the area’s air quality.
According to a 2014 research by the Utah Department of Air Quality and Brigham Young University, over 70% of the aerosol recorded during significant inversion episodes is ammonium nitrate, Hallar stated in the press release. It is created using the same procedure for creating new particles.
What Steps Can People Take to Reduce the Number of Aerosols in The Air?
Depends, really. By addressing the source of the emissions, anthropogenic aerosols produced by smoking and industrial pollutants can be minimized. Hirshorn told EcoWatch that because natural aerosols like dust and sea salt can enter the atmosphere through natural paths, controlling them is far more difficult.
The power plants upwind of SPL are probably going to be shut down in ten to fifteen years, making it a suitable location to research how NPF might be impacted by lower global greenhouse gas emissions.
Hirshorn stated in the news release that we might get an answer to that in around 20 years. I think you’d notice a drop in the frequency of new particle production events. It wouldn’t completely stop new particle creation, but the frequency would decrease.