Scientist V. Ramanathan poses with several of the tiny airplanes that his research team used to study air pollution.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
Finding Answers in the Clouds
News story originally written on May 21, 2008
Scientists are sending tiny airplanes buzzing in the sky to find out how air pollution can impact weather, climate, and global warming.
The tiny airplanes look like regular planes but they have only a wing span of eight feet and weigh less than 50 pounds. They do not have a pilot and are remote-controlled. But these planes are not toys. They are important research tools.
The team of scientists filled the planes with tiny instruments that measure different parts of the atmosphere. Then they flew the planes into clouds of air pollutants called brown clouds and the instruments collected data.
Brown clouds are a haze of tiny particles and water droplets of cumulus clouds. Sometimes they form naturally, such as during forest fires. But many brown clouds are made by people. The smoke from power plants, cars, trucks, and factories all adds to brown clouds. The pollution travels high in the atmosphere and is carried by the wind.
The scientists wanted to look at brown clouds from the inside out. They wanted to understand how air pollution changes the amount of sunlight that is reflected back out into space. The amount of sunlight that is reflected back out to space has an impact on Earth's temperature, weather, and climate.
They discovered that the increase in air pollution has shaded the Earth. More sunlight is now reflected back into space because there is more air pollution. So air pollution may hide some of the impact of global warming by keeping the planet somewhat cooler. As air pollution, which causes dangerous health problems, is reduced, our planet will get even warmer.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
includes issues of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist
, full of classroom activities on different topics in Earth and space science, ranging from seismology
, rocks and minerals
, and Earth system science
You might also be interested in:
Have you ever heard of air pollution? Air pollution is not new. 700 years ago, when people started burning large amounts of coal 700 years ago in London, England, they complained about the dust and soot...more
Earth’s climate is getting warmer. During the past 100 years Earth’s average temperature rose about 0.6° Celsius (1.0° F). Things that people are doing like burning fossil fuels, changing the way land...more
Cumulus clouds belong to the Clouds with Vertical Growth group. They are puffy white or light gray clouds that look like floating cotton balls. Cumulus clouds have sharp outlines and a flat base. Seeing...more
Air pollution comes from many sources. Some natural sources affect air quality. Volcanoes produce sulfur, chlorine, and ash. Wildfires make smoke and carbon monoxide. Cattle and other animals release methane...more
Wind is moving air. Warm air rises, and cool air comes in to take its place. This movement creates the winds around the globe. Winds move at different speeds and have different names based on their speed....more
This picture was taken from high above our planet. Looking at the Earth from very far away like this we can see that some parts of our planet look light in color, and some parts look dark. The color of...more
During the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, scientists have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe what happens in the atmosphere a heavily populated part of the world cuts back on everyday industrial...more