Bjørn H. Samset
Among the factors that affect the climate, few are as diverse and challenging to understand as aerosols. Minute particles suspended in the atmosphere, aerosols are emitted through a wide range of natural and industrial processes, and are transported around the globe by winds and weather. Once airborne, they affect the climate both directly, through scattering and absorption of solar radiation, and indirectly, through their impact on cloud properties. Combining all their effects, anthropogenic changes to aerosol concentrations are estimated to have had a climate impact over the industrial era that is second only to CO2. Their atmospheric lifetime of only a few days, however, makes their climate effects substantially different from those of well-mixed greenhouse gases.
Major aerosol types include sea salt, dust, sulfate compounds, and black carbon—or soot—from incomplete combustion. Of these, most scatter incoming sunlight back to space, and thus mainly cool the climate. Black carbon, however, absorbs sunlight, and therefore acts as a heating agent much like a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, aerosols can act as cloud condensation nuclei, causing clouds to become whiter—and thus more reflecting—further cooling the surface. Black carbon is again a special case, acting to change the stability of the atmosphere through local heating of the upper air, and also changing the albedo of the surface when it is deposited on snow and ice, for example.
The wide range of climate interactions that aerosols have, and the fact that their distribution depends on the weather at the time and location of emission, lead to large uncertainties in the scientific assessment of their impact. This in turn leads to uncertainties in our present understanding of the climate sensitivity, because while aerosols have predominantly acted to oppose 20th-century global warming by greenhouse gases, the magnitude of aerosol effects on climate is highly uncertain.
Finally, aerosols are important for large-scale climate events such as major volcanoes, or the threat of nuclear winter. The relative ease with which they can be produced and distributed has led to suggestions for using targeted aerosol emissions to counteract global warming—so-called climate engineering.