Amount of Dust, Pollen Matters for Precipitation in Clouds, Climate Change, Colorado State University Atmospheric Scientists Reveal

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Large numbers of dust and pollen particles in the atmosphere may make your nose twitch, but when lifted to the heights where clouds form they can lead directly to greater precipitation in some clouds, Colorado State University atmospheric scientists have discovered.

Formation of ice crystals is necessary for precipitation formation in many clouds, and the numbers of crystals formed is linked to the abundance of larger aerosol particles in the atmosphere, according to a study led by Paul DeMott and Anthony Prenni, research scientists in the Atmospheric Science department at Colorado State, appearing in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Special particles called ice nuclei – with both natural and human sources – serve as catalysts to form ice in clouds. Precipitation falling as rain has its source in these ice crystals or agglomerates of these in some clouds. Variation in the numbers of ice nuclei due to changes in processes affecting emissions at the Earth’s surface or human influences, such as industrial pollution, can thus affect precipitation and the properties of clouds that determine their warming or cooling impacts on climate.

“The sources of most ice nuclei are primary emissions – from windblown desert and soil dust, certain bacteria or other organisms released from plant matter or in sea spray, dust, forest fire smoke, soot or metallic pollution particles, and even volcanic ash,” DeMott said. “Only a small proportion of these particles can act as ice nuclei, but the bigger the particles, the better it is for ice nuclei.”

At the present time, many climate models assume that ice forms at a particular temperature in the atmosphere, regardless of whether ice nuclei are present. This assumption is too simple for climate models to accurately represent what’s occurring in nature, DeMott said.

Using DeMott’s new findings, global climate model simulations conducted by collaborator Xiaohong Liu of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory predicted that clouds have a stronger cooling effect on the globe than previously estimated. However, future increases in these ice nuclei for cold clouds would reduce the cooling impact on climate and vice versa, the scientists found.

Scientists have spent decades trying to understand the processes. The National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA have funded Colorado State’s research in this area.

DeMott and Prenni analyzed data from 14 years of trips across the globe – from the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil to the Arctic to Broomfield, Colo. – to collect air samples, sometimes in specially equipped National Center for Atmospheric Research planes. The Colorado State scientists also developed the first instrument –that could be used inside a plane to take continuous air samples from in and around clouds and measure in real time the ice-forming ability of particles. The instrument allows the researchers to sample air and detect the total number concentrations of ice nuclei – without first putting them on a filter or other processing.

How capturing air from a plane works: CSU scientists take air samples into a small chamber through a special port on the side of the aircraft. A diffusion chamber cools and humidifies the air and particles between two plates of ice toward conditions where ice forms – essentially "growing" clouds by simulating the conditions in the atmosphere. Researchers then evaluate how many particles will form ice crystals for specific cloud conditions. In some studies, the plane passes through clouds to measure, with other instruments, how much ice really forms.

Scientists also used specialized instruments to determine the chemical makeup of the particulates forming ice.

“Ice nuclei are hard to measure – they’re microns or less in size like the size of bacteria,” Prenni said. “They don’t make haze – there aren’t enough of them. Of all the particles in the atmosphere, one in a million particles in the atmosphere can cause ice to form.”

In March, Prenni and DeMott published an article in Atmospheric Environment that examined the role biological particles – from plants, bacteria or other living things on Earth – play in characterizing atmospheric concentrations and types of ice nuclei. They concluded that much more work needs to be done in tandem with biologists to determine numbers and sources of these particles as a function of season and temperature range.

“The people who look at snow and find these bacteria in it don’t know if the bacteria were in fact the ice nuclei, or how many of them there are floating around in the air in various places/seasons,” said Sonia Kreidenweis, professor of Atmospheric Science who works with DeMott and Prenni. “There could be too few to matter. We are actually making these measurements in the air to try to nail this down.”

“We don’t know if we can identify all the biological particles,” DeMott said. “What are the most effective ones? Their amounts matter as well. Is there any way that they play a role in cloud processes?”

Colorado State University’s atmospheric chemists have been recognized internationally for cutting-edge research and leadership in their field.

• Prenni’s NASA-sponsored research in Brazil, for example, led to a paper in Nature Geosciences that showed, for the first time, the contributions of biological particles and dust from as far away as the Saharan desert on ice-nucleus concentration and elemental composition in the Amazon basin. He and Markus Petters, also a research scientist at CSU, took measurements for two months as part of the Amazonian Aerosol Characterization Experiments along with scientists from Harvard University and the Max Plank Institute in Germany.

• Prenni and DeMott are now leading CSU efforts on two new NSF-sponsored projects to study similar processes in Colorado. In addition to the Atmospheric Science group, these collaborative projects includes the Colorado State Proteomics and Metabalomics Core Facility, as well as researchers from the University of Colorado, the University of Wyoming and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

• DeMott chairs the International Committee on Nucleation and Atmospheric Aerosols. His research accomplishments have been acknowledged by a 2003 Distinguished Administrative Professional award and the 2009 College of Engineering Atmospheric Science Distinguished Alumnus award.

• Kreidenweis was one of 15 researchers nationally who served on the National Research Council’s committee on the Significance of International Transport of Air Pollutants. The committee issued a report in September 2009 reviewing scientific evidence that plumes of air pollutants can have a negative impact on air quality far from their original sources.

The Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State has been designated by the university as a Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence and is home to two of only a dozen University Distinguished Professors – Graeme Stephens and Tom Vonder Haar. Stephens and his team were at the helm of one of the very few university-led NASA Earth Science missions with the 2006 launch of CloudSat, the world’s first cloud-profiling radar in orbit.