Organic oxides, such as the molecule that gives pine forests their distinctive smell, are vital ingredients for starting cloud formation, report researchers.
An experiment called CLOUD (Cosmic Leaving OUtdoor Droplets), which took place at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, is giving scientists a clearer picture of the effect that clouds have on climate change. The study appears online in Science.
“Clouds have a major cooling effect on climate, but we don’t have a good understanding yet of how pollution has affected natural clouds, and what this means for climate change,” says study coauthor Professor Ken Carslaw of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds.
Indeed, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has once more pointed to clouds as the largest source of uncertainty in current climate models.
A large share of the uncertainty stems from the complexity of cloud formation. Cloud droplets form when water vapor in the atmosphere condenses, but the process requires the helping hand of solid or liquid particles to which water vapor needs to attach before a cloud droplet is born.
While such particles can be emitted directly from sources like sea spray, dust, or vehicle emissions, most of them form in the atmosphere from gases emitted by natural sources or human activity.
This transformation of gases into solid or liquid particles—called “nucleation”—is the very first step to forming clouds. However, scientists still don’t know which molecules are needed to make the particles stable so that they can grow large enough to serve as “cloud seeds.”
Clouds in the lab
To study the mechanism behind this stability, the CLOUD experiment research team used a lab-based cloud chamber, equipped with a wide range of external instrumentation to monitor and analyze its contents.
“With CLOUD we can change the concentrations of chemicals involved in nucleation and then measure the rate at which new particles are created with extreme precision,” says study coauthor Professor Urs Baltensperger, head of the Laboratory of Atmospheric Chemistry at the Paul Scherrer Institue.
“Also parameters like temperature, pressure, and humidity can be easily changed at will. Such control on ambient conditions is virtually impossible to attain in field measurements.”
Individual molecules can only nucleate into particles if they first create clusters of molecules large enough to prevent them from falling apart.
The new study shows that certain oxidized organic vapors of biological origin can act as this “glue” to hold the clusters together. The scientists tried a mixture containing oxidized products of alpha-pinene—a molecule that gives pine forests their characteristic smell—and found a dramatic rise in nucleation rates.
“When we tested these new experimental data in our climate model, we were able to show that gases emitted from vegetation are having a large effect on particles in the atmosphere,” says Carslaw.
“These results are a major step forwards in understanding how natural processes affect Earth’s climate, and they will help us to build much more realistic climate models.”
Source: University of Leeds