Aerosols and Climate: It’s Not Just Hairspray Anymore

March 5, 2011

Every time we take a breath, we inhale gazillions of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air. These particles are called aerosols. It’s incredible that something ranging from the size of a virus to the width of a human hair can have major effects on our health, and on the Earth’s climate. Aerosols are not completely understood – but what scientists do know is that there are many kinds, both human-caused and natural, and that they definitely can affect the climate.

A lot of aerosols are natural – like sea salt, dust, or the kind ejected up from volcanic eruptions. But then there are the kinds that we humans spew into the atmosphere – like from fossil fuel combustion, cars, and power plants. We learned that these aerosols affect the atmosphere and climate because depending on the type, they can reflect or absorb the sun’s radiation.

 

Delivering a climate presentation

 

There seem to be lots of kinds of aerosols, and lots of ways they affect the climate. So we split into groups and each took one kind to research. At the end of the day, we all got to teach each other what we learned about aerosols. Check out the pollution above Beijing, China in 2009 – that’s not clouds!

 

Pollution above Beijing

Pollution above Beijing

 

Through Second Life, we also got to talk to Dr. Compton Tucker, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He talked about his work in studying an 200m diameter impact crater in the Amazon. The impact released 500 to 1000 megatons of TNT. Imagine the aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by that event!

 

Dr. Compton Tucker on NASA Island

 

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