Broken Glass and Dust Provide Insights to Climate Change

dust off coast image

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr Creative Commons

Our future climate may be revealed in the way a drinking glass shatters. At least, according to research by National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Jasper Kok. Analyzing the patterns of broken glass help revel similar patterns in the fragmentation of dust particles -- and its these dust particles in our atmosphere that play a big role in the planet's climate. Watching how dust fragments could lead to better weather forecasting and clearer understanding of long-term climate change. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research on mineral dust -- particles that are emitted when sand is blown into soil and shatters dirt fragments, which launch into the air -- shows that there is a lot more dust in our atmosphere than previously thought, and depending on the characteristics of the particles, dust can either reflect solar energy or trap energy as heat. The smaller particles reflect heat, and the larger ones absorb it and heat our atmosphere. How dust shatters and into what sizes, therefore, reveals what kind of role it plays in climate.

"As small as they are, conglomerates of dust particles in soils behave the same way on impact as a glass dropped on a kitchen floor," Kok says in a press release. "Knowing this pattern can help us put together a clearer picture of what our future climate will look like."

According to Kok, the ratio of silt particles (the larger heat-absorbing particles) to clay particles (the smaller heat-reflecting particles) is two to eight times greater than represented in climate models. This means climate models are likely off when it comes to factoring in silt particles -- for instance, desert regions like the southwestern US and norther Africa may need improved projections of future climate, and marine ecosystems may actually be getting more iron from dust in the air than previously thought.

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