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The Importance Of Clouds And Aerosols To Climate Change

Earth's radiation budget is a balance between incoming and outgoing radiation. Everything, from an individual person to Earth as a whole, emits energy. Scientists refer to this energy as radiation. As Earth absorbs incoming sunlight, it warms up. The planet must emit some of this warmth into space or increase in temperature. Two components make up the Earth's outgoing energy: heat (or thermal radiation) that the Earth's surface and atmosphere emit; and sunlight (or solar radiation) that the land, ocean, clouds and aerosols reflect back to space. The balance between incoming sunlight and outgoing energy determines the planet's temperature and, ultimately, climate. Both natural and human-induced changes affect this balance, called the Earth's radiation budget.

Clouds affect the radiation budget directly by reflecting sunlight into space (cooling the Earth) or absorbing sunlight and heat emitted by the Earth. When clouds absorb sunlight and heat, less energy escapes to space and the planet warms. To understand how clouds impact the energy budget, scientists need to know the composition of cloud particles, the altitude of clouds and the extent to which clouds at different altitudes overlap each other. Both natural processes and human activities produce aerosols. They either reflect or absorb energy, depending on their size, chemical composition and altitude. The haze layer that is commonly seen in the summertime is one example of an aerosol that primarily reflects sunlight. Soot emitted by diesel engines is an example of an aerosol that absorbs sunlight. The reflection and absorption of energy by aerosols act in a direct way to change the balance between incoming and outgoing energy. These effects are called direct aerosol radiative forcing.

Aerosols also can affect the Earth's radiation budget indirectly by modifying the characteristics of clouds. Cloud particles almost always form around aerosols such as natural sea salt particles or human-made sulfate particles. The presence of additional aerosols can change the way clouds radiate energy and the length of time they stay intact. A good example is the way that exhaust particles emitted into the atmosphere by ships can increase the brightness of clouds along their course.


Fact Credit:
NASA Earth Observatory
NASA Earth Observatory Web Site

Further Reading
The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies
by Richard Hamblyn

Related Web Links
Physics and Chemistry of Clouds and Aerosols
by Vidal Salazar

3D Rendering of Global Clouds and Aerosols
by Center for Air Pollution Impact and Trend Analysis

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