Researchers had thought that pollution causes larger and longer-lasting storm clouds by making thunderheads draftier through a process known as convection. But atmospheric scientist Jiwen Fan and her colleagues show that pollution instead makes clouds linger by decreasing the size and increasing the lifespan of cloud and ice particles.
Also, pollution can decrease the daily temperature range via such clouds: High clouds left after a thunderstorm spread out across the sky and look like anvils. These clouds cool the earth during the day with their shadows but trap heat like a blanket at night.
Pollution can cause clouds from late afternoon thunderstorms to last long into the night rather than dissipate, causing warmer nights.
Fan and colleagues decided to compare real-life summer storm clouds to a computer model that zooms deep into simulated clouds. The model included physical properties of the cloud particles as well as the ability to see convection, if it gets stronger or weaker. Most models run in days or weeks, but the simulations in this study took up to six months.
The researchers started with cloud data from three locations that differ in how polluted, humid and windy they typically are: the tropics in the western Pacific, southeastern China and the Great Plains in Oklahoma. The data had been collected through DOE's ARM Climate Research Facility.
The team found that in all cases, pollution increased the size, thickness and duration of the anvil-shaped clouds. However, only two locations - the tropics and China - showed stronger convection. The opposite happened in Oklahoma - pollution made for weaker convection.
This inconsistency suggested that stronger convection isn't the reason. Taking a closer look at the properties of water droplets and ice crystals within clouds, the team found that pollution resulted in smaller droplets and ice crystals, regardless of location.
In addition, the team found that in clean skies, the heavier ice particles fall faster out of the anvil-shaped clouds, causing the clouds to dissipate. However, the ice crystals in polluted skies were smaller and too light to fall out of the clouds, leading to the larger, longer-lasting clouds.
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.