‘We’re changing the clouds.’ An unintended test of geoengineering is fueling record ocean warmth


researchers are now waking up to another factor, one that could be filed under the category of unintended consequences: disappearing clouds known as ship tracks. Regulations imposed in 2020 by the United Nations’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) have cut ships’ sulfur pollution by more than 80% and improved air quality worldwide. The reduction has also lessened the effect of sulfate particles in seeding and brightening the distinctive low-lying, reflective clouds that follow in the wake of ships and help cool the planet. The 2020 IMO rule “is a big natural experiment,” says Duncan Watson-Parris, an atmospheric physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We’re changing the clouds.”

By dramatically reducing the number of ship tracks, the planet has warmed up faster, several new studies have found. That trend is magnified in the Atlantic, where maritime traffic is particularly dense. In the shipping corridors, the increased light represents a 50% boost to the warming effect of human carbon emissions. It’s as if the world suddenly lost the cooling effect from a fairly large volcanic eruption each year, says Michael Diamond, an atmospheric scientist at Florida State University.

The natural experiment created by the IMO rules is providing a rare opportunity for climate scientists to study a geoengineering scheme in action—although it is one that is working in the wrong direction. Indeed, one such strategy to slow global warming, called marine cloud brightening, would see ships inject salt particles back into the air, to make clouds more reflective. In Diamond’s view, the dramatic decline in ship tracks is clear evidence that humanity could cool off the planet significantly by brightening the clouds. “It suggests pretty strongly that if you wanted to do it on purpose, you could,” he says.

The influence of pollution on clouds remains one of the largest sources of uncertainty in how quickly the world will warm up, says Franziska Glassmeier, an atmospheric scientist at the Delft University of Technology. Progress on understanding these complex interactions has been slow. “Clouds are so variable,” Glassmeier says.

Some of the basic science is fairly well understood. Sulfate or salt particles seed clouds by creating nuclei for vapor to condense into droplets. The seeds also brighten existing clouds by creating smaller, more numerous droplets. The changes don’t stop there, says Robert Wood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. He notes that smaller droplets are less likely to merge with others, potentially suppressing rainfall. That would increase the size of clouds and add to their brightening effect. But modeling also suggests that bigger clouds are more likely to mix with dry air, which would reduce their reflectivity.


Source: ‘We’re changing the clouds.’ An unintended test of geoengineering is fueling record ocean warmth | Science | AAAS

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