December 28, 2010

Analyzing Broken Glass Could Improve Weather Forecasting

By studying how broken glass shatters, meteorologists and other scientists may be able to predict what the future holds for our planet's climate, researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) claim in a new study.

According to Jasper Kok, a scientist at the Boulder, Colorado based Earth sciences thinktank, the way in which brittle objects such as glass behave when they are shattered is similar to the behavior of dust particles released into the atmosphere when dirt is broken apart.

Those particles, which range in size from 0.1 microns to 50 microns in diameter, are far more numerous than initially thought, Kok says. Depending upon their size, they can either reflect solar energy and cool the Earth, or trap that energy and increase both surface and atmospheric temperatures.

Furthermore, Kok notes that they influence the formation of clouds and precipitation in some areas--particularly in very dusty regions of the world, including northern parts of Africa and the southwestern United States.

"The smallest particles, which are classified as clay and are as tiny as 2 microns in diameter, remain in the atmosphere for about a week, circling much of the globe and exerting a cooling influence by reflecting heat from the Sun back into space," the NCAR scientists reported in a Monday press release.

"Larger particles, classified as silt, fall out of the atmosphere after a few days. The larger the particle, the more it will tend to have a heating effect on the atmosphere," they added.

The study could improve the accuracy of weather forecasting, and also suggests that marine ecosystems receive more iron from airborne particles than scientists had originally believed, the NCAR said.

The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and appears in this week's edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


Image 1: The secret of atmospheric dust and its relationship with climate may be in a drinking glass. Credit: NASA

Image 2: The comparative sizes of dust particles in the atmosphere. The photo is a satellite image of a 1992 dust storm over the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia. Credit: NCAR


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