Aerosol map of the world

Greenhouse gases are not the only thing in the atmosphere to causes changes to our climate. This computer simulation from NASA (officially known as Goddard Earth Observing System Model, Version 5) shows aerosols spiralling through the atmosphere. While greenhouses gases tend to have a warming effect, aerosols cool the planet by reflecting more solar radiation back into space.

Dominating the picture is an orange streak of sand, blown off the Saharan and Arabian deserts. Light blues in the northern and southern oceans are sea salt particles swirling around cyclones. In the north, gray smoke from fires, and white sulphates from industry emissions and volcanoes complete the picture.

Over the years, a number of calls have been made to use aerosols to fight the increasing threat of global warming. It might seem sensible to release agents that causes cooling to balance the greenhouse gases that are causing warming. But as the picture above demonstrates, the atmosphere is an incredibly complex thing. Hundreds of factors determine what our climate and weather is. Therefore, it’s vitally important to try to understand this behemoth above our heads as much as we can, otherwise any fixes we try to make could result in terrible unexpected consequences.

The simulation was run on a supercomputer called Discover. It was, just last month, ranked as the 53rd most powerful supercomputer in the world. It can perform 417.3 trillion calculations per second (Tflops), roughly 4000x more powerful than the best computer processors out now.

To see a very cool video of the aerosols in motion – click here.

Source: William Putman, NASA/Goddard


Charlie is a science writer from London. He tweets @UnpopSci.

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