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Unstrange Phenomena

08 April 2011

Why Is The Arctic Warming Faster Than Rest Of Our Planet?

Polar bears on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean...Polar bears in the Arctic near the North Pole with the USS Honolulu - Image via Wikipedia

From Denny: At what rate is the Arctic currently warming than the rest of the planet? Try twice as fast. And everyone in the scientific community has been trying to figure out why.

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide warm up the climate while some aerosols like sulfate, from fossil fuel combustion, are a cooling influence on global warming, acting as a counterbalance.

Energy balance on Earth affected by aerosols and clouds

Arctic clouds and aerosols are thought to influence the loss of sea ice, carving out a niche as important roles in the energy balance on Earth. We all know what a cloud is but do you know what an aerosol is?

Aerosol definition

Just in time with the official definition is this: When fine but solid particles or liquid droplets are suspended in a gas then that's an aerosol. What are examples of an aerosol? Smoke, that haze you see over the ocean, good ol' air pollution, Los Angeles smog and CS gas. And here you thought aerosol only pertained to an aerosol spray can of paint or hairspray.

Aerosol word origin

For the etymologists out there, the word aerosol is derived from the idea of matter floating in air is a suspension. Then the technical guys got into the act for clarity and accuracy. After all, we simply must observe the Science Book Of Etiquette and recognize the difference between true solutions and suspensions.

New definition of aerosol

For the hair-splitting crowd to be properly satisfied the aerosol definition has come to include beyond covering dispersions of tiny, even sub-microscopic, particles in a liquid. Since scientists have studied dispersions in air, the aerosol definition has expanded to include liquid droplets, solid particles and as many combinations of these as you can create, find or imagine.

New study to solve the puzzle as to why these clouds persist near the Earth's surface

The number of ice-forming particles created in Arctic clouds were found to exist differently in the seasons.  A research team studied the clouds from Fairbanks to Barrow, Alaska during the month of April during a 12-day period.  They were able to gather data to give scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory a more accurate picture as to the number and types of aerosol particles that cloud droplets and crystals form.

The researchers hope this new and more complete gathered information will help solve the puzzle of why these clouds persist near the Earth's surface.  They are also hoping the new information collected over the North Slope of Alaska can explain just what role aerosols play in the longevity of the clouds.

The study stats

* 12 day period in April
* measured the number, size and composition of aerosol and cloud particles
* collected by 41 state-of-the-art cloud and aerosol instruments on an aircraft
* took more than 100 hours
* conducted on a total of 27 aircraft flights
* a variety of sampling patterns provided both vertical and horizontal distributions of the clouds and aerosols above Barrow, Alaska.

New research data helps with climate change predictions and modeling

The April data complement other data collected in October. The first published article about this data was placed in the December 2010 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

While this may sound like dull stuff to the average person it is the average person who will benefit from this research. This particular data will help scientists better understand the complex interactions among clouds, aerosols and other components of the Arctic climate system. They will be able to better utilize surface measurements when estimating aerosols, clouds, precipitation and radiative heating.

It will enable scientists to help better predict our ever-changing climate as well as better understand global climate models. A big hats off to our weather warriors out there in obscure places of the world gathering minutiae to improve our quality of life.

More information: McFarquhar GM, et al. 2011. "Indirect and Semi-Direct Aerosol Campaign (ISDAC): The Impact of Arctic Aerosols on Clouds." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 92(2):183-201. DOI:10.1175/2010BAMS2935.1

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