UW professor's climate change theory leads to NASA mission

For nearly a decade, University of Washington atmospheric chemist Robert Charlson has advanced the notion that, in some regions, tiny particles from industrial pollution are actually countering the atmospheric warming effects of greenhouse gases. The theory is based on nearly 30 years of observations, using technology patented by the UW, that relate the amount of visible haze to sunlight reflected back into space and to the mass and composition of haze particles.

Now NASA is planning a mission, called PICASSO-CENA, that will provide crucial data to help scientists better understand the role of those submicron-sized particles in human-caused climate change. The mission will use light detection and ranging, or lidar, the optical cousin of radar, to globally measure how much sunlight is reflected into space by clouds and pollution particles. Those particles, called aerosols, make up the familiar hazes in places like the Eastern United States or the Los Angeles area.

Aerosols are of particular interest to Charlson, an emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences and chemistry, because even on a clear day they are present in the skies in and downwind from industrial regions of the Northern Hemisphere. They are about the same size as the wavelength of the light they reflect, which is what makes them so effective - if they were larger or smaller their effect would be far less. The particles partially reflect the sun's heat and partially counter greenhouse warming, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.

"You could reach the frightening conclusion that we have learned how to pollute just right to prevent climatic disaster. But we haven't learned how to pollute just right because they don't neatly offset each other," Charlson said. "The greenhouse effect works 24 hours a day everywhere and the aerosol effect only works during the day and only in certain places."

In addition, he said, greenhouse gases last for years while aerosols dissipate in days or week

Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington

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