Uncovering the Link between Aerosols and Global Warming
Aerosols are very small particles dispersed in our atmosphere that work in opposition to greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gases trap solar energy and contribute to warming our planet, aerosols typically have more of a competing, cooling effect. In fact, some estimates even suggest that since the 1950s, these aerosol particles have likely counteracted about a third of greenhouse gas-driven global warming.
Natural aerosols, such as sea salt, dust particles, and organic compounds from plants make up about 90% of the aerosols in our atmosphere and constitute an important part of our planet’s atmosphere. The other 10% occur from human activities, namely industrial pollution and the burning of tropical forests.
Although often regarded as air pollution for their damaging effects on human health and agricultural productivity, these aerosols collectively play a crucial role in counteracting global warming. Sulfate aerosols, in particular, are considered by many scientists as the most significant aerosols as they absorb no solar radiation, but rather reflect it back into space. In addition to increasing our planet’s albedo, aerosols can also influence the climate via clouds. As a matter of fact, there would be no rain without aerosols to act as the nuclei or “cloud seeds” on which water vapour can condense.
Recently, the interaction between aerosol particles and our climate has gained increasing attention from the science community (and rightfully so), wherein some research has found that geographic location markedly influences the cooling potential of a given aerosol emission.