Tuesday, May 29th 2012, 3:47 PM EDT
The IPCC is working up to releasing pieces of its next climate report, starting in 2013. This has the world's climate scientists scrambling to get their latest work included in that dubious document. Foremost among those struggling for primacy of place are the computer modelers, those who study their own created worlds instead of the natural one around them. This report promises to be more contentious than the last one (AR4) in that the modelers have been racing to incorporate the effects of aerosols, soot and other airborne particulates that had previously been give scant attention. Early results suggest that aerosols have a much greater impact on regional climate than scientists had realized and that aerosols and clouds are providing some big surprises.
From space parts of Earth's surface appear pristine, white clouds painted on deep blue oceans or tan and green continents. But not all areas come into such clear focus—others are obscured by haze, clouds of a different nature made of fine particles known as aerosols. Airborne particulates do more than just obscure our planet's surface. By reflecting, absorbing and emitting radiation, they play a major role in regulating Earth's temperature, a role that has proved maddeningly difficult to simulate in computer models. A new crop of global climate models is in the offing, trying to reflect an increasing understanding of aerosols while at the same time climate scientists are discovering that they do not know as much about their old boogieman, CO2, as some would have us believe.
Smoke gets in their eyes
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For decades, airborne particulates have been the biggest sources of uncertainty in forecasts of future climate. Arguments have raged as to whether aerosols primarily caused cooling or warming. The skies of Asia are muddled by the infamous Brown Clouds that poison the air, alter the climate and impact the monsoon cycle. Not all airborne particulates are man made either. From the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the dustiest place on Earth, come dust clouds that modify conditions as far away as North America.
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