Scientists using one of the nation's newest and most capable research aircraft are launching a far-reaching field project this month to study plumes of airborne dust and pollutants that originate in Asia and journey to North America.
The plumes are among the largest such events on Earth, so great in scope that scientists believe they might affect clouds and weather across thousands of miles while interacting with the Sun's radiation and playing a role in global climate.
Known as PACDEX (Pacific Dust Experiment), the project will be led by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. NCAR's main sponsor, the National Science Foundation (NSF), will provide most of the funding. The first mission will be launched in late April, depending on weather patterns in Asia. It will continue for two months.
To study the changes in the plumes as they move through the atmosphere from Japan to the western United States, the PACDEX team will deploy the NSF Gulfstream-V aircraft, which is operated and maintained by NCAR. This newly configured plane has a range of about 6,000 miles and can cruise from just a few hundred feet above Earth's surface to over 50,000 feet. These features enable scientists to study the plumes across thousands of miles and at different levels of the atmosphere.
"Aerosol pollutants, such as those to be studied in PACDEX, account for the largest uncertainties in climate forcing," said Jay Fein, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, which funded the experiment. "PACDEX is addressing this challenging and societally relevant science question."
While many particles in the plumes, such as sulfates, cool the planet by blocking solar radiation from reaching Earth, some particles such as black carbon absorb sunlight as well and therefore may amplify the effects of global warming. PACDEX will help scientists refine computer models of greenhouse gas emissions and improve forecasts of future climate change, both for the entire globe and for specific regions that are especially affected by dust and pollutants.
"PACDEX will open a window into what happens to the atmosphere as these massive plumes cross the Pacific Ocean and affect clouds, precipitation, and the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth," explains NCAR scientist Jeff Stith, a principal investigator on the project. "We want to determine how the various particles of dust and pollutants influence clouds and climate, and how far downwind those effects occur."
"PACDEX comes at a crucial time in our efforts to understand the regional impacts of global warming," says V. Ramanathan, a PACDEX principal investigator based at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "It will also help us help us examine how the dust and soot modifies storm tracks and cloud systems across the Pacific, which influence North American weather patterns in major ways. By focusing on these plumes, PACDEX will shed light on one of the major environmental issues of this decade."
As Asia's economies boom, scientists are increasingly turning their attention to the plumes, which pack a combination of industrial emissions (such as soot, smog, and trace metals) and dust from storms in regions such as Central Asia's Gobi Desert.
The plumes can alter global temperatures by interacting with large-scale, mid-latitude cloud systems over the Pacific that reflect enormous amounts of sunlight and help regulate global climate.
The plumes also may affect regional precipitation patterns because water vapor molecules adhere to microscopic particles of dust and pollutants to form water droplets or ice particles that eventually grow and fall out of the clouds as rain or snow.
In addition, the dust and pollutants reduce the amount of light reaching Earth, contributing to a phenomenon known as global dimming that can affect both temperatures and precipitation.
The Gulfstream-V will carry an array of instruments that will enable scientists to both measure clouds and bring dust, pollutants, and cloud particles into the aircraft for study. Scientists will capture ice particles from clouds, evaporate them, study the residue, and then try to recreate the particle in a special moistened chamber to mimic the temperature and moisture conditions that enabled the original ice particle to form.
The international research team will include scientists from U.S. and Asian organizations.
U.S. organizations include NCAR, Scripps, NASA, NOAA, Arizona State University, Colorado State University, Naval Research Laboratory, Oregon State University, University of Alaska, University of Colorado, and the University of Iowa.
Asian organizations include the Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies, Lanzhou University and Peking University in China, and Seoul National University in Korea.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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