Aerosols are small particles suspended in the atmosphere. They are often not or barely visible to the human eye, yet their impact on climate, weather, health, and ecology are significant. This page introduces the various major types of aerosols, and explains why researching them is important.
Aerosols range in size from a few tens of nanometers—less than the width of the smallest viruses—to several tens of micrometers—about the diameter of human hair. The size and composition of aerosol particles affects how far they can travel around the world, their interactions with solar and thermal radiation, and their potential effects on health. Aerosols injected into the atmosphere directly are known as 'primary aerosols'. Sea spray, mineral dust, smoke, and volcanic ash are all primary aerosols. Secondary aerosols are aerosols which were emitted in another form (e.g. gases), then become aerosol particles after going through chemical reactions in the atmosphere, such as sulfate aerosols from volcanoes or industrial emissions. All aerosols can also undergo further chemical changes, referred to as ‘aging effects’. Some more information about these various aerosol types is given below.
Mineral dust is emitted when wind blows over deserts or otherwise dry soils, lifting the particles get carried off into the atmosphere. Mineral dust is one of the most abundant aerosol types, and dust particles are also very large compared to other aerosols, often a size of several micrometers in diameter. One micrometer is 0.000001 meters.
Approximately two billion metric tons of mineral dust are emitted per year, with wide-ranging effects. For example, mineral dust from the Sahara can affect the formation of hurricanes in the Atlantic, and fertilize the Amazon basin. Some desert source regions of mineral dust include the Sahara, Sahel, Gobi, Taklamakan, Namib, Salar de Uyun, central Australia, and the United States’ Great Basin. Dust can also be emitted from dry, barren soils, which can be exacerbated by deforestation and overgrazing. North African dust storms occur year-round, while Asian dust storms are most frequent during the spring. The satellite images below show two dust storms on quite difference scales.
Sea spray is largely composed of sea salt, but also consists of organic matter such as dissolved organic carbon, or even bacteria, phytoplankton, and microalgae. It is commonly formed through the bursting of air bubbles over the ocean surface. The properties of sea spray are chiefly dependent on wind speed, near-surface relative humidity, and sea surface temperature.
Smoke is emitted from fires, both natural wildfires and human-caused (for e.g. agricultural practices such as land clearing and waste incineration). These are often also referred to as 'biomass burning' aerosols, and are composed of organic (brown) and black carbon (soot). The composition of smoke is strongly dependent on the fuel source burning, and atmospheric conditions (e.g. moisture) at the time.
Organic and black carbon absorb light to varying extents, which warms the atmosphere locally while simultaneously shading and cooling the surface below. When black carbon is deposited on snow and ice, it decreases their reflectivity of those surfaces, which can warm them and speed up their melting. Short-term and long-term exposure to black carbon can result in visibility impairment, respiratory and cardiovascular effects, and even premature death.
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of aerosols emitted by human activities has increased greatly. These industrial aerosols may have a wide variety of compositions. Some industrial aerosols include:
Together, this combination can be responsible for a visible smog, and heavy exposure can have harmful effects to plant and animal life, although air quality regulations have improved the situation in recent years over some parts of the world. For example, cities such as London and Los Angeles used to be infamous for their smog, although conditions in these cities have improved greatly. However, air quality in many other parts of the world is still a concern.
Volcanoes produce two main aerosols: ash and sulfate. Ash is a dark, large aerosol produced by the pulverization of crystallized magma and contains minerals such as silica and feldspar. The ash clouds can have significant impacts on human health and safety. They pose a significant threat to air traffic, as ash can destroy the engines of planes. Ash deposits, if thick enough, can damage buildings. Volcanic ash also irritates the lungs, and can cause acute respiratory damage or even death if enough is inhaled.
Through eruptions and during passive degassing, volcanoes emit SO2, which is oxidized in the atmosphere to sulfate aerosols. Large eruptions can cause widespread cooling as a result of these sulfate aerosols. For instance, Pinatubo injected 20 million tons of SO2 into the stratosphere, causing an abrupt half-degree (0.6°C) drop in global temperatures. This lasted two years, ending as sufate finally dropped out of the atmosphere. Volcanic ash is also rich in nutrients, such as iron, that are used by ocean-dwelling organisms such as phytoplankton. An eruption therefore can be a natural fertilizer for areas of the ocean with insufficient levels of iron, such as the northeast Pacific. This area experienced a large phytoplankton bloom shortly after the eruption of the volcano Kasatochi in the Aleutian Islands in 2008.
Not all aerosols fall into the above categories. Biogenic aerosols are those which come from living things. This can include organic chemicals such as limonene, which are emitted by plants and react in the atmosphere to form aerosols, as well as other debris such as pollen, spores, and microbes.
Aerosol lifetimes range from hours to years, dependent primarily on the size of the particles and the height at which they are injected into the atmosphere. For fine aerosols injected near the surface, the lifetime is typically several days. This increases to weeks or months for particles injected into or transported to the upper troposphere, and fine aerosols in the stratosphere (e.g. volcanic sulfate) can remain there for years. Because of these short lifetimes, many therefore are not usually transported far from their sources. For example, the highest concentrations of organic carbon, black carbon, and nitrate aerosols are found over North America, Europe, and East Asia, which are also the most prolific producers of industrial emissions. However, there are many examples of long range transport, such as:
Aerosols are removed from the atmosphere by either "dry" or "wet" processes:
There are many reasons why we study and monitor aerosol levels. Some of these are discussed below.
Aerosols scatter (reflect) a portion of the Sun's incoming light, and, dependent on type, may also absorb some. These are known as 'direct radiative effects' of aerosols. The scattering has a local cooling effect on the surface below, while absorption has a local warming effect on the atmosphere where the aerosols are located. Sometimes these effects can be large and more widespread. For example, when the volcano Pinatubo erupted in 1991, so many reflective sulfate aerosols were released into the stratosphere that the temperature dropped around 0.6°C.
Another set of effects are known as 'indirect effects' or 'aerosol-cloud interactions'. Aerosols are largely responsible for the creation of clouds by acting as cloud condensation 'nuclei, or a sort of foundation for clouds to accumulate water on. Increasing the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere can influence factors such as how many clouds there are, how large the cloud droplets are, how high the clouds are, and when or how heavy rainfall is. These are known as 'indirect radiative effects' of aerosols. You can watch a video about these indirect effects from volcanic sulfate aerosols on YouTube here. There is also a `semi-direct effect' whereby local heating of the atmosphere by absorbing aerosols like black carbon can influence whether clouds form at all, or lead to the evaporation of existing clouds.
One well-known manifestation of aerosol effects on clouds is seen in ship tracks, where aerosols emitted from ship exhaust lead to a decrease in cloud particle size, causing a bright streak of cloud to follow the ship.
When absorbing aerosols such as soot or dust are deposited on snow or ice, they decrease its reflectivity ('albedo') and cause the surface to absorb more light, which has a warming effect. This can lead to, for example, faster retreat of glaciers.
Aerosols have the capacity to cause damage to plants and animals, including humans. Aerosol particles can irritate the lungs, and in high enough concentrations cause permanent respiratory damage and even death. Chronic exposure to fine particulate matter is associated with adverse health impacts such as decreased life expectancy and higher likelihoods of lung cancer. Fine particulate air pollution has also been determined to have adverse effects on cardiovascular health.
Mineral dust can be blown across and between continents by the wind. For example, about half of the dust arriving at the Amazon rainforest, which fertilizes plant growth, comes from the Bodele Depression in the Sahara Desert. Nutrients from dust deposited in the oceans can also lead to algal blooms, as seen below.
Mineral dust can also transport bacteria and viruses living within it. For example, the shrinking of the Aral Sea since the second half of the 20th century has led to health problems for those living in the region.
The efficiency of solar power generation systems is affected by aerosols. Aerosol scattering and absorption reduces the amount of direct sunlight reaching solar panels, by about 4 W for every watt reflected to outer space, decreasing their potential yield.
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This page was prepared by A. Chen, B. Howl, and A. Sidel during their summer 2015 internship with the Deep Blue group at NASA GSFC.