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This satellite image shows both dust and clouds in the atmosphere above Japan on April 18, 2006. The dust traveled to Japan from the Gobi Desert.
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Image Courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory

Aerosols and Cloud Formation

In order for clouds to form, water droplets in the atmosphere need a surface to condense upon. There are millions of tiny particles floating in the air that can provide this surface, and these particles are called aerosols. They are 100 times thinner than a human hair! Aerosols come from soil, dust, sea salt, or air pollution from cars, power plants, and factories.

The number of particles that are in the atmosphere affect the number of cloud particles that can form. If there is a high number of aerosols in the atmosphere, then a high number of cloud droplets can form. These cloud droplets will also be smaller because the water is divided between more cloud droplets. When this happens, the clouds usually do not produce precipitation.

Different types of clouds and the amount of clouds in the atmosphere may have different impacts on climate. Scientists are still exploring these topics.

Last modified October 17, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA