Clouds can form without particles

In addition to their aesthetic and photogenic appeal, clouds play a crucial role in Earth’s climate and ecosystems, helping regulate temperatures by reflecting sunlight. All clouds — from fluffy cumulus to wispy cirrus — grow from seeds that, more often than not, are tiny particles of pollen, dust or chemical aerosols that float into the atmosphere from Earth’s surface. Sulfuric acid, a byproduct of volcanic eruptions and fossil fuel combustion, is one of the most ubiquitous precursors to atmospheric aerosols today and has long been thought to play a major role in modern cloud formation. But what about earlier in Earth’s history, before humans impacted the atmosphere as much? Three new studies, representing both experimental and field data, suggest that the planet’s plants and trees might have done just fine on their own pumping cloud-forming aerosols into the skies.

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Elizabeth Goldbaum

Goldbaum is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.

Friday, September 30, 2016 - 06:00

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