NOAA study: Increase in particles high in Earth’s atmosphere has offset some recent climate warming

July 21, 2011

A recent increase in the abundance of particles high in the atmosphere has offset about a third of the current climate warming influence of carbon dioxide (CO2) change during the past decade, according to a new study led by NOAA and published today in the online edition of Science.

In the stratosphere, miles above Earth’s surface, small, airborne particles reflect sunlight back into space, which leads to a cooling influence at the ground. These particles are also called “aerosols," and the new paper explores their recent climate effects -- the reasons behind their increase remain the subject of ongoing research.

“Since the year 2000, stratospheric aerosols have caused a slower rate of climate warming than we would have seen without them,” says John Daniel, a physicist at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in Boulder, Colo. and an author of the new study.

light from a lidar instrument forms a beam in the sky over Boulder, CO.

Photo credit: CIRES/NOAA

Light from a lidar instrument forms a beam in the sky over Boulder, Colo. NOAA researchers and colleagues used lidar data to better understand recent changes in the amounts of tiny particles high in Earth's atmosphere.

The new study focused on the most recent decade, when the amount of aerosol in the stratosphere has been in something of a “background” state, lacking sharp upward spikes from very large volcanic eruptions. The authors analyzed measurements from several independent sources – satellites and several types of ground instruments – and found a definitive increase in stratospheric aerosol since 2000.

“Stratospheric aerosol increased surprisingly rapidly in that time, almost doubling during the decade,” Daniel said. “The increase in aerosols since 2000 implies a cooling effect of about 0.1 watts per square meter – enough to offset some of the 0.28 watts per square meter warmingeffect from the carbon dioxide increase during that same period.”

The reasons for the 10-year increase in stratospheric aerosols are not fully understood and are the subject of ongoing research, says coauthor Ryan Neely, with the University of Colorado and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). Likely suspects are natural sources – smaller volcanic eruptions – and/or human activities, which could have emitted the sulfur-containing gases, such as sulfur dioxide, that react in the atmosphere to form reflective aerosol particles.

Daniel and colleagues with NOAA, CIRES, the University of Colorado, NASA, and the University of Paris used a climate model to explore how changes in the stratosphere’s aerosol content could affect global climate change – both in the last decade, and projected into the future. The team concluded that models miss an important cooling factor if they don’t account for the influence of stratospheric aerosol, or don’t include recent changes in stratospheric aerosol levels.

cartoon showing sources of aerosols reaching the stratosphere.Credit: CIRES/NOAA

Aerosols reach the stratosphere from above and below, as shown in the graph. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbonyl sulfide (OCS), and dimethyl sulfide (DMS) are the dominant surface emissions which contribute to aerosol formation.

Moreover, future global temperatures will depend on stratospheric aerosol. The warming from greenhouse gases and aerosols calculated for the coming decade can vary by almost a factor of two — depending on whether aerosols continue to increase at the same rate as over the past decade, or if instead they decrease to very low levels, such as those experienced in 1960.

If stratospheric aerosol levels continue to increase, temperatures will not rise as quickly as they would otherwise, said Ellsworth Dutton, also with NOAA ESRL and a co-author on the paper. Conversely, if stratospheric aerosol levels decrease, temperatures would increase faster. Dutton and his colleagues use the term “persistently variable” to describe how the background levels of aerosol in Earth’s stratosphere can change from one decade to the next, even in the absence of major volcanic activity.

Ultimately, by incorporating the ups and downs of stratospheric aerosols, climate models will be able to give not only better estimates of future climate change, but also better explanations of past climate changes.

“The ‘background’ stratospheric aerosols are more of a player than we thought,” said Daniel. “The last decade has shown us that it doesn’t take an extremely large volcanic eruption for these aerosols to be important to climate.”

Authors of the paper are: Susan Solomon, University of Colorado; John Daniel, Chemical Sciences Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory; Ryan Neely, CIRES-University of Colorado and NOAA-ESRL; J.P. Vernier, NASA-Langley Research Center and University of Paris; Ellsworth Dutton, Global Monitoring Division of NOAA-ESRL; and Larry Thomason, NASA-Langley.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.