From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , a fairly important discovery, one that will help us understand the role clouds play in the Earth’s energy balance. The fact that mineral dust and metallic aerosols are identified would suggest that as mining, smelting, and industrialization have increased, so would cirrus cloud formation, though it may be more complex than that. Even so, I suspect somebody will use this new finding to suggest yet another geoengineering scheme to cool the planet by creating more cirrus clouds. – Anthony
Dust in the clouds
Cirrus clouds form around mineral dust and metallic particles, study finds
CAMBRIDGE, MA — At any given time, cirrus clouds — the thin wisps of vapor that trail across the sky — cover nearly one-third of the globe. These clouds coalesce in the upper layers of the troposphere, often more than 10 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Cirrus clouds influence global climate, cooling the planet by reflecting incoming solar radiation and warming it by trapping outgoing heat. Understanding the mechanisms by which these clouds form may help scientists better predict future climate patterns.
Now an interdisciplinary team from MIT, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and elsewhere has identified the major seeds on which cirrus clouds form. The team sampled cirrus clouds using instruments aboard high-altitude research aircraft, analyzing particles collected during multiple flights over a nine-year period. They found that the majority of cloud particles freeze, or nucleate, around two types of seeds: mineral dust and metallic aerosols.
The absence of certain particles in the clouds also proved interesting. While scientists have observed that substances like black carbon and fungal spores readily form cloud particles in the lab, the team detected barely a trace of these particles in the upper atmosphere.
“We think we’re really looking at the seed, the nucleus of these ice crystals,” says Dan Cziczo, an associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at MIT. “These results are going to allow us to better understand the climatic implications of these clouds in the future.”
Cziczo and his colleagues have published their results this week in Science.
Up in the air
Cirrus clouds typically form at altitudes higher than most commercial planes fly. To sample at such heights, the team enlisted three high-altitude research aircraft from NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF): a B-57 bomber, a DC-8 passenger jet, and a G-V business jet, all of which were repurposed to carry scientific instruments.
From 2002 to 2011, the team conducted four flight missions in regions of North America and Central America where cirrus clouds often form. Before takeoff, the team received weather forecasts, including information on where and when clouds might be found.
“More often than not, the forecast is solid, and it’s up to the pilot to hit a cloud,” Cziczo says. “If they find a good spot, they can call back on a satellite phone and tell us if they’re inside a cloud, and how thick it is.”
For each mission, Cziczo and Karl Froyd, of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, mounted one or two instruments to the nose of each plane: a single particle mass spectrometer and a particle collector.
Each flight followed essentially the same protocol: As a plane flew through a cloud, ice particles flowed through a specialized inlet into the nose of the plane. As they flowed in, the particles thawed, evaporating most of the surrounding ice. What’s left was a tiny kernel, or seed, which was then analyzed in real time by the onboard mass spectrometer for size and composition. The particle collector stored the seeds for further analysis in the lab.
A human effect on cloud formation
After each flight, Cziczo and his colleagues analyzed the collected particles in the lab using high-resolution electron microscopy. They compared their results with analyses from the onboard mass spectrometer and found the two datasets revealed very similar cloud profiles: More than 60 percent of cloud particles consisted of mineral dust blown into the atmosphere, as well as metallic aerosols.
Cziczo notes that while mineral dust is generally regarded as a natural substance originating from dry or barren regions of the Earth, agriculture, transportation and industrial processes also release dust into the atmosphere.
“Mineral dust is changing because of human activities,” Cziczo says. “You may think of dust as a natural particle, but some percentage of it is manmade, and it really points to a human ability to change these clouds.”
He adds that some global-modeling studies predict higher dust concentrations in the future due to desertification, land-use change and changing rainfall patterns due to human-induced climate effects.
Cziczo’s team also identified a “menagerie of metal compounds,” including lead, zinc and copper, that may point to a further human effect on cloud formation. “These things are very strange metal particles that are almost certainly from industrial activities, such as smelting and open-pit burning of electronics,” Cziczo adds. Lead is also emitted in the exhaust of small planes.
Contrary to what many lab experiments have found, the team observed very little evidence of biological particles, such as bacteria or fungi, or black carbon emitted from automobiles and smokestacks. Froyd says knowing what particles are absent in clouds is just as important as knowing what’s present: Such information, he says, can be crucial in developing accurate models for climate change.
During the study, led by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the researchers conducted flight missions from 2002 to 2011 over North America and Central America at 20,000 to 50,000 feet elevation, where cirrus clouds often form. As their planes flew through the clouds, researchers captured and heated the ice crystals, which then evaporated, leaving behind a tiny kernel that they analyzed using an onboard mass spectrometer.
“Cirrus clouds are complicated but the important message is that dust and certain metals provide the seeds for a majority of the ice crystals that form the clouds,” said Cynthia Twohy, an Oregon State University atmospheric scientist and co-author on the study. “Other particle types – including bacteria and soot from human-produced combustion or natural sources – don’t seem to contribute much to the nuclei of cirrus crystals.
“These biological particles may be important in the formation of lower altitude clouds,” added Twohy, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But they were surprisingly absent from the particles we sampled from cirrus clouds.”
Despite the length of the study and its different geographic locations, the researchers found similar outcomes: About 60 percent of the cloud particles they analyzed could be traced to mineral dust blown into the atmosphere, or to metallic aerosols.
“Mineral dust can occur naturally,” Twohy said, “or it can be influenced by human activities. Certainly the major deserts like the Sahara and Gobi are enormous sources of mineral dust. But agriculture, over-grazing and climate and land-use changes can also contribute.”
Twohy said the scientists have not yet traced the origin of the dust to see how much of it came from natural versus anthropogenic causes. The metallic aerosols, she added, are unusual and may be easier to trace to specific sources. Containing elements like lead, zinc, tin and copper, they appear to be from industrial activities, according to other scientists in the study.
“There’s been a lot of research efforts spent on looking at how these particle types freeze under various conditions,” Froyd says. “Our message is that you can ignore those, and can instead look at mineral dust as the dominant driving force for the formation of this type of cloud.”
This research was funded by NASA and the NSF.
Daniel J. Cziczo, Karl D. Froyd, Corinna Hoose, Eric J. Jensen, Minghui Diao, Mark A. Zondlo, Jessica B. Smith, Cynthia H. Twohy, and Daniel M. Murphy. Clarifying the Dominant Sources and Mechanisms of Cirrus Cloud Formation. Science, 9 May 2013 DOI: 10.1126/science.1234145
Formation of cirrus clouds depends upon the availability of ice nuclei to begin condensation of atmospheric water vapor. While it is known that only a small fraction of atmospheric aerosols are efficient ice nuclei, the critical ingredients that make those aerosols so effective has not been established. We have determined in situ the composition of the residual particles within cirrus crystals after the ice was sublimated. Our results demonstrate that mineral dust and metallic particles are the dominant source of residual particles, while sulfate/organic particles are underrepresented and elemental carbon and biological material are essentially absent. Further, composition analysis combined with relative humidity measurements suggest heterogeneous freezing was the dominant formation mechanism of these clouds.