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Scientists have been working hard to understand the factors that contribute to climate change. One of those factors are the tiny particles that form clouds. Since the dawn of the industrial age, we have been releasing harmful gases in the atmosphere which have resulted in heating up the environment. But there has been a pleasant side effect: the cloud forming particles have also been released in the atmosphere. They have played a big role in keeping the planet’s temperature down. For years, scientists thought that these particles were the direct result of human activity. Now, evidence shows that these particles can be produced naturally.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the biggest source of uncertainty in determining the effects of human driven climate change are aerosols. There are two main sources of aerosol particles. Direct aerosol particles are produced by burning of biomass, sea salt spray and dust. The second source is called secondary aerosol particles, formed when a gas is converted into particles.
To make sure that the predictions about the climate change are accurate, scientists need to know just how cloudy the planet was before the industrial era started – figures of which can then be combined with the precise measurements of greenhouse warming that’s a result of human activity. This combined data will help the scientists to narrow down the estimates of projected climate change. (these numbers haven’t changed much for the past 35 years)
The models predict that Earth will warm from 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (1.6 to 4.4 degrees Celsius) if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles over the next century. To make these models more accurate so that the future can be planned accordingly, scientists need to understand how these cloud forming particles come into existence. Up till now, they’re convinced that burning of fossil fuels is necessary to make these particles. Sulfuric acid – one of the fossil fuel emissions – was necessary for forming secondary aerosol particles. According to a new study, nature is capable of producing these particles without any human help.
Scientist theorized that the aerosol particles can be formed when high energy cosmic rays bombard a mix of tree vapors. To perform the experiment which would give them the desired results regarding the formation of aerosol particles, scientists formed a 3 meter wide stainless steel chamber at CERN. This whole setup was to perform the experiment called Cosmics Leaving Outdoor Droplets or CLOUD. This chamber is the cleanest cloud chamber in the world and boasts less than one contaminants in a trillion molecules – essential because the experiment required incredible sensitivity to detect even the very poorly established vapors which are responsible for aerosol particle formation.
For the experiment, scientists used vapors to recreate Earth’s atmosphere inside the chamber. The particle accelerator at CERN was then used to direct a beam of artificial cosmic rays at the chamber. The results showed that if an ion from a cosmic ray is in the center of the cluster, the aerosol particles form 10 to 100 times more abundantly. This is because the ion in the center of the cluster helps stabilize it.
As mentioned earlier, this study will help scientists to sharpen the estimates of climate change and temperature rise. In addition, researchers will now be able to understand the role of cosmic rays that bombarded our atmosphere before the rise of the industrial era. While the pollution caused by human activity remains the main source for the secondary aerosol particles, determining the role of cosmic rays can help come up with a more elegant solution for climate change.