Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

The origins of cirrus: Earth’s highest clouds have dusty core

The thin, wispy clouds known as “cirrus” cover nearly a third of the globe and are found high in the atmosphere—5 to 10 miles above the surface. But a new study shows that they typically have a very down-to-earth core, consisting of dust and metallic particles. 

Cirrus clouds are important to global climate because they interact with radiation from the sun and from the earth.  Cirrus are made of ice crystals, but a small “seed particle” is often needed to start the process of forming the ice.  Scientists haven’t known exactly what kind of particles lead to cirrus formation, causing the climate-related properties of the cirrus to be highly uncertain.  A new study published May 9 in Science magazine by researchers at MIT, CIRES, NOAA, NASA, and other institutions has shown that dust and metallic particles are usually at the core of cirrus cloud particles.

“We’ve seen hints of this before, but this study demonstrates that it’s true across a range of geographic locations and a variety of cirrus cloud types,” said Karl Froyd, one of the study’s lead scientists and a CIRES researcher working at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratories in Boulder, Colo.  “Cirrus clouds are picky about the kind of particle they form on.  Mineral dust and metallic particles are the most preferred types.”

Other particle types, including mixtures of sulfate and organic carbon, biomass burning particles, elemental carbon, and particles of biological origin were much less efficient as cirrus seeds.

“These results are going to allow us to better understand the climatic implications of these clouds in the future,” said Daniel Cziczo, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the lead author of the study.  Current global models prescribe a variety of cirrus formation mechanisms, leading to a wide range of cirrus properties and associated climate effects.  This study simplifies the playing field, suggesting that most cirrus form on a special subset of aerosol particles, and that most of those particles are mineral dust and metallic particles.

The scientists used instrumentation aboard high-altitude NASA research aircraft to measure cirrus clouds and seed particles, in flights over Central America and North America from 2002 to 2011.  A special inlet was designed by Froyd to selectively capture ice crystals when flying through cirrus.  After removing the water from the cirrus crystal, Froyd and NOAA-ESRL scientist Daniel Murphy used an instrument known as PALMS (Particle Analysis by Laser Mass Spectrometry) to analyze the residual seed core.  PALMS is a state-of-the-art instrument, originally developed at NOAA by Murphy, that can characterize the chemical composition of particles one by one as they are sampled into the instrument.  “PALMS gives us a detailed chemical fingerprint of each individual particle,” said Murphy.

Also as a part of the study, the scientists used a model to calculate the  atmospheric seed particle concentrations using estimates of the emissions of fine particles from the Earth’s surface, their atmospheric transport, and their ice-forming ability.  “The model results were completely independent of the measurements, yet came to the same conclusions.  This gives us confidence that we’re not missing something important,” said Froyd.

The new study provides many answers about how cirrus clouds form, but also raises new questions.  Is it possible that human activities could affect the amount of dust and metallic particles in the atmosphere, and therefore affect the formation of cirrus clouds?  Mineral dust comes from arid regions such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts, and atmospheric winds carry them across the globe.  Some studies suggest that desertification, land use change, and changing rainfall patterns could account for 10 to 50% of the dust currently in the atmosphere.  Other studies indicate that dust concentrations could increase during this century, perhaps even doubling or more.  The metallic particles found by the researchers are from industrial and combustion sources that have decidedly human influences.

The researchers are now focused on understanding exactly how much mineral dust is in the atmosphere, and where the metallic particles come from.  And, they wonder if their results would hold true in the southern hemisphere.  Most of the large sources of dust and industrial particles are in the northern hemisphere. 

“Cirrus may form differently in the southern hemisphere,” said Murphy.  “That’s one of the next frontiers for this research.”

The authors of the study are from MIT, CIRES, NOAA, NASA, Princeton University, Harvard University, Oregon State University, and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

                                                                                    —Christine A. Ennis
Karl Froyd, CIRES scientist. 303-497-4766,
Karin Vergoth, CIRES, 303-497-5125,

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