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Study finds climate-influencing cirrus clouds form around mineral dust and metallic aerosols; little evidence of black carbon

An interdisciplinary team from MIT, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and elsewhere has identified the major particles upon which cirrus clouds form. A paper on their results is published in the journal Science.

Formation of cirrus clouds depends upon the availability of ice nuclei to begin condensation of atmospheric water vapor. While it is known that only a small fraction of atmospheric aerosols are efficient ice nuclei, the critical ingredients that make those aerosols so effective has not been established. We have determined in situ the composition of the residual particles within cirrus crystals after the ice was sublimated. Our results demonstrate that mineral dust and metallic particles are the dominant source of residual particles, while sulfate/organic particles are underrepresented and elemental carbon and biological material are essentially absent. Further, composition analysis combined with relative humidity measurements suggest heterogeneous freezing was the dominant formation mechanism of these clouds.

—Cziczo et al.

Cirrus clouds influence global climate, cooling the planet by reflecting incoming solar radiation and warming it by trapping outgoing heat. Understanding the mechanisms by which these clouds form may help scientists better predict future climate patterns.

The team sampled cirrus clouds using instruments aboard high-altitude research aircraft, analyzing particles collected during multiple flights over a nine-year period. They found that the majority of cloud particles freeze, or nucleate, around two types of particles: mineral dust and metallic aerosols. Contrary to what many lab experiments have found, the team observed very little evidence of biological particles, such as bacteria or fungi, or black carbon (BC) emitted from automobiles and smokestacks.

Cirrus clouds typically form at altitudes higher than most commercial planes fly. To sample at such heights, the team enlisted three high-altitude research aircraft from NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF): a B-57 bomber, a DC-8 passenger jet, and a G-V business jet, all of which were repurposed to carry scientific instruments.

From 2002 to 2011, the team conducted four flight missions in regions of North America and Central America where cirrus clouds often form. Before takeoff, the team received weather forecasts, including information on where and when clouds might be found.

For each mission, Dan Cziczo, associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at MIT, and Karl Froyd, of NOAA’s Earth System Resource Laboratory, mounted one or two instruments to the nose of each plane: a single particle mass spectrometer and a particle collector.

Each flight followed essentially the same protocol: As a plane flew through a cloud, ice particles flowed through a specialized inlet into the nose of the plane. As they flowed in, the particles thawed, evaporating most of the surrounding ice. What’s left was a tiny kernel, or seed, which was then analyzed in real time by the onboard mass spectrometer for size and composition. The particle collector stored the seeds for further analysis in the lab.

After each flight, Cziczo and his colleagues analyzed the collected particles in the lab using high-resolution electron microscopy. They compared their results with analyses from the onboard mass spectrometer and found the two datasets revealed very similar cloud profiles: More than 60% of cloud particles consisted of mineral dust blown into the atmosphere, as well as metallic aerosols.

Cziczo notes that while mineral dust is generally regarded as a natural substance originating from dry or barren regions of the Earth, agriculture, transportation and industrial processes also release dust into the atmosphere.

Cziczo’s team also identified a “menagerie of metal compounds,” including lead, zinc and copper, that may point to a further human effect on cloud formation. “These things are very strange metal particles that are almost certainly from industrial activities, such as smelting and open-pit burning of electronics,” Cziczo adds. Lead is also emitted in the exhaust of small planes.

Froyd says knowing what particles are absent in clouds is just as important as knowing what’s present: Such information, he says, can be crucial in developing accurate models for climate change.

There’s been a lot of research efforts spent on looking at how these particle types freeze under various conditions. Our message is that you can ignore those, and can instead look at mineral dust as the dominant driving force for the formation of this type of cloud.

—Karl Froyd


  • Daniel J. Cziczo, Karl D. Froyd, Corinna Hoose, Eric J. Jensen, Minghui Diao, Mark A. Zondlo, Jessica B. Smith, Cynthia H. Twohy, and Daniel M. Murphy (2013) Clarifying the Dominant Sources and Mechanisms of Cirrus Cloud Formation. Science doi: 10.1126/science.1234145


Trevor Carlson

It's interesting that climate scientists are just now getting around to doing this type of study. i.e. After most of their warming models have tended to predict much higher rates of warming.

This subject of clouds as one of the earths many natural normalizing mechanisms is very crucial to developing an accurate climate model.

I get it though, it's better to predict and protect for the worst and then dial in more accurate predictions as more data is collected and understanding of the complete system is increased. Also we may not have the computing power to factor in the effect of clouds even if we know how they form.

The red flag for me though is when I see science being hi-jacked and used to increase power or political capital. This usually happens when someone takes the data and links it with a specific agenda or actions that must be taken. The above seems to be straight good science. Refreshing!


Err Trevor?



So, should we try to make these metallic aerosols and shoot them up to the upper atmosphere to increase clouds ?

Would this be better than sulphates as proposed by some people ?

The metallic aerosols are so light, it might be easy to get them up there.

But very bulky - maybe you could put a dvice to create them on the plane...


The problem with that idea mahonj is that cirrus clouds influence global climate two ways, cooling the planet by reflecting incoming solar radiation AND warming it by trapping outgoing heat.

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