Aerosols Found to Strengthen Storms

Dramatic looking storm clouds with rain and lightning.

Having a large quantity of aerosol particles in the atmosphere may increase the duration of large storm clouds and produce more extreme storms. (Image: Romolo Tavani via Dreamstime)

Having a large quantity of aerosol particles in the atmosphere may increase the duration of large storm clouds by delaying rainfall, giving the clouds time to grow larger and live longer. Aerosols will produce more extreme storms when the rain finally falls.

The research from the University of Texas at Austin, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, addresses the influence aerosol particles have on the lifecycle of large thunderstorm systems.

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The researchers discovered that aerosols help to increase the lifespans of convective cloud systems by as much as 3-24 hours.
The researchers discovered that aerosols help to increase the lifespans of convective cloud systems by as much as 3-24 hours. (Image: Rafał Długosz via Dreamstime)

These types of storms are often violent systems, which can span over hundreds of miles. The systems as noted in the paper are:

“The primary source of precipitation over the tropics and mid‐latitudes, and their lifetime can have a large influence on the variability of rainfall, especially extreme rainfall that causes flooding.”

Using satellite data from 2,430 convective cloud systems, the researchers discovered that aerosols help to increase the lifespans of convective cloud systems (as much as 3-24 hours), depending on the regional meteorological conditions.

Sudip Chakraborty, lead author, explained in a statement:

“A cloud particle is basically water and aerosols. It’s like a cell. The aerosol is the nucleus and the water is the cytoplasm.

“The more aerosols you have, the more cells you get. And if you have more water, you should get more rain.”

Aerosols from natural and manmade sources

Aerosols comprise small particles in the atmosphere; they form the nucleus within a cloud around which water condenses, forming the cloud. They come from natural sources like volcanic eruptions or desert dust; however, they can also come from man-made sources, for example, the burning of wood, coal, or oil.

Coal burning power plant with smoke stacks, Moscow, Russia.
Coal burning power plants are one man-made source of aerosols. (Image: Vladimir Zhuravlev via Dreamstime)

This is the first time a study has looked at aerosols and their importance in the lives of storm clouds compared with meteorological conditions such as relative humidity, available convective energy, and wind shear. Even though meteorological conditions remain the most important element, the research indicates that they play a significant role.

Daniel Rosenfeld from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field, said the effects of aerosols on deep convective clouds and climate have been major questions for over a decade.

In particular, is the role of clouds in reflecting solar radiation and emitting thermal radiation to space, which can influence the radiative balance in the atmosphere and Earth’s temperature. This study significantly advances the science, Rosenfeld said, adding:

“This is the first study that shows the full lifecycle of convective clouds in a statistically meaningful way on a climate scale.

“This is an important step towards determining the impact of clouds on radiative forcing. The next step is to quantify.”

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