Trace Gases Can Be Formed From Aerosol Particles That Seed Clouds


A study conducted in the Azores on clouds and aerosols has found that new particles can seed the information from the marine boundary layer.

That is the atmosphere up to about one kilometer above the earth’s surface. Even on the open ocean where precursor gas concentration was expected to be low.  


(Photo : Magda Ehlers)

The Study

Tiny aerosol particles that seed the information of clouds can form out of nothing over the open ocean, a new atmospheric study over the Eastern North Atlantic has revealed.

The formation of the “new particles” occurs when sunlight reacts with molecules of trace gases in the marine boundary layer. That is the atmosphere within the first kilometer above the earth’s surface. 

The results of the study published in Nature Communications will shed more light on how aerosols and clouds are represented in models that describe Earth’s climate.

This will help scientists understand how the particles might have affected the planet and the processes that control them in the past and now, and make better predictions.

A co-author of the study, Chongai Kuang, from the Environmental and Climate Sciences Department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, said, “When we say ‘new particle formation,’ we’re talking about individual gas molecules, sometimes just a few atoms in size, reacting with sunlight.” 

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(Photo : Stanislav Kondratiev)

Efforts Made On Land And Sea

To succeed in this study, the team flew an aircraft on “porpoise flights,” ascending and descending via the boundary layer to get vertical profiles of the particles and precursor gas molecules that are present at different altitudes.

The flights were coordinated with measurements taken from the ground station.

New particles were forming at the boundary layer but the researchers didn’t expect it because they thought the concentration of the critical precursor trace would be too low. 

Kuang mentioned that they were perplexed over larger particles much bigger than newly formed ones that were measured at the surface. 

Nonetheless, the aircraft had specific flight patterns that gave them the results. The results show evidence that new particle formation was occurring. But it was in the upper boundary layer not at the surface.

The result showed a combination of elevated concentrations of small particles with low concentrations of pre-existing aerosol surface area.

And clear evidence that reactive trace gases such as dimethyl sulfide were being transported vertically-along with atmospheric conditions favorable for those gases to react with sunlight.

When these aerosol particles are formed, they tend to attract additional gas molecules. These molecules thereafter condense and cause the particles to grow to around 80-90 nanometers in diameter.

The larger particles are transported downward, and that’s what the scientists measure at the surface.

“The surface measurements plus the aircraft measurements give us a really good spatial sense of the aerosol processes that are happening,” Kuang added.

The particles grow large enough, at a given size, to attract water vapor, and they condense to form cloud droplets, and eventually clouds. Aerosol particles are suspended in the atmosphere and the clouds eventually form to reflect or absorb sunlight and affect the earth’s temperature.

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