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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2018-12-18 14:05:51
    • Article ID: 705636

    Small Particles Play Large Role in Tropical Thunderstorms

    Ultrafine aerosol particles produce bigger storm clouds and more precipitation than larger aerosols in pristine conditions.

    • Credit: Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility

      A heavily instrumented ground site downwind of Manaus captured measurements of aerosols, clouds, and solar and thermal energy during GoAmazon

    The Science

    Aerosol-cloud interactions remain one of the largest uncertainties in climate projections. Ultrafine aerosol particles—less than 50 nanometers wide—can be abundant in the lower atmosphere. Traditionally, they’ve been considered too small to affect cloud formation. A unique set of observations from the Amazon let scientists study the role of aerosols in tropical storm cloud development. The scientists concluded that when tiny particles greatly outnumber larger particles in a warm and humid environment, the result is enhanced condensation that releases more heat, producing much more powerful updrafts. More warm air is pulled into the clouds, lifting more droplets aloft and producing more ice and snow, lightning, and rain.

    The Impact

    The newly discovered enhanced condensation mechanism shows ultrafine aerosols invigorate thunderstorms in a much more powerful way than their larger counterparts. The addition of ultrafine aerosols in otherwise low-aerosol environments can have large impacts on storms in warm and humid places. These places include tropical and some subtropical regions. Incorporating these results in Earth system models is important. Why? It will let scientists better understand changes in certain types of storms between pre-industrial and present-day conditions.


    The biggest challenge in unraveling the effect of aerosols on clouds and climate is isolating their effects from changes due to other environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity. This study capitalized on a unique data set from Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) GoAmazon research campaign, with atmospheric observation sites located around the Amazon basin and the heavily populated city of Manaus. Notably, in the Amazon wet season, pre-storm dynamic conditions are very consistent, and the observational data downwind of Manaus clearly distinguished enhancement of the ultrafine range of aerosols compared to the more pristine sites. The research team performed observational analyses of the data, including updraft velocity and aerosol measurements. They then conducted high-resolution simulations of a sample case, using a detailed cloud microphysics model to scrutinize the mechanism. They found that the ultrafine aerosol particles introduced by the Manaus pollution plume enhanced convective intensity and precipitation rates to a degree not previously observed or simulated. The detailed simulations showed that the drastic increase in convective intensity was primarily due to enhanced condensational heating. The ultrafine particles reach higher into the cloud and provide many more landing sites for water vapor to collect and condense into cloud droplets. This enhanced condensational heating at lower levels in the cloud boosts storm intensity much more powerfully compared to the previous “cold-cloud invigoration” concept—enhanced heat from ice-related processes at upper levels.


    This study was supported by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science as part of the Atmospheric System Research program. This research used Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Institutional Computing resources. Y.Z. and Z.L. were supported by National Science Foundation and National Science Foundation of China. D.R. was supported by BACCHUS European Commission. The DOE Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility’s GoAmazon field campaign data were used. The X-band and S-band radar data were supported by the Cloud Processes of the Main Precipitation System project. The authors acknowledge support from the Central Office of the Large Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA), Universidade do Estado do Amazonas, and the local Research Foundation (FAPEAM). L.A.T.M., P.A., and H.M.J.B. were supported by the São Paulo Research Foundation. The work was conducted under authorization of the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development. For the operation of the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory site, the authors acknowledge support by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação, and the Amazon State University, FAPEAM, LBA/INPA, and Center of Conservation Units of the Ministry of Sustainable Development Sustainable Development Reserve Uatumã.


    J. Fan, D. Rosenfeld, Y. Zhang, S.E. Giangrande, Z. Li, L.A.T. Machado, S.T. Martin, Y. Yang, J. Wang, P. Artaxo, H.M.J. Barbosa, R.C. Braga, J.M. Comstock, Z. Feng, W. Gao, H.B. Gomes, F. Mei, C. Pöhlker, M.L. Pöhlker, U. Pöschl, and R.A.F. de Souza, “Substantial convection and precipitation enhancements by ultrafine aerosol particles.” Science 359, 411 (2018). [DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8461]

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    Mortality rates of moist tropical forests are on the rise due to environmental drivers and related mechanisms.

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    A new award-winning magnet technology invented at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory could help drive the nation's transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric and hybrid power more rapidly, at lower cost, and in a more environmentally friendly way.

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    Found: A precise method for determining how waves and particles affect fusion reactions

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    Argonne scientist elected as SAE Fellow

    Scientist Michael Wang from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory was recently inducted as a Fellow of the professional engineering organization SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). The organization reserves this prestigious grade of membership for thosewho have made significant contributions to mobility technology and have demonstrated leadership in their field.

    Top 10 Discoveries of 2018

    Every year, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory compiles a list of the biggest advances made by the Lab's staff scientists, engineers, and visiting researchers. From uncovering mysteries of the universe to building better batteries, here, in no particular order, are our picks for the top 10 discoveries of 2018.

    U.S. Department of Energy Announces $33 Million for Small Business Research and Development Grants

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced it will award 189 grants totaling $33 million to 149 small businesses in 32 states.

    DOE to Provide $16 Million for New Research into Atmospheric and Terrestrial Processes

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a plan to provide $16 million for new observational research aimed at improving the accuracy of today's climate and earth system models.

    Machine learning award powers Argonne leadership in engine design

    When attempting to design engines to be more fuel-efficient and emissions-free, automotive manufacturers have to take into account all the complexity inherent in the combustion process.

    ORNL partners with industry to address multiple nuclear technology challenges

    The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is collaborating with industry on six new projects focused on advancing commercial nuclear energy technologies that offer potential improvements to current nuclear reactors and move new reactor designs closer to deployment.

    Lithium earns honors for three physicists working to bring the energy that powers the sun to Earth

    Feature describes research of three PPPL physicists who have won the laboratory's 2018 outstanding research awards

    DOE approves technical plan and cost estimate to upgrade Argonne facility; Project will create X-rays that illuminate the atomic scale, in 3D

    The U.S. Department of Energy has approved the technical scope, cost estimate and plan of work for an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source, a major storage-ring X-ray source at Argonne.

    Costas Soukoulis elected to National Academy of Inventors

    Costas Soukoulis, Ames Laboratory senior scientist and Iowa State University Frances M. Craig Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor, has been named as a 2018 National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellow.

    Biophysicist F. William Studier Elected Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors

    F. William Studier, a Senior Biophysicist Emeritus at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry at Stony Brook University, has been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). He is among 148 renowned academic inventors being recognized by NAI for 2018.

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    Observing Clouds in Four Dimensions

    Six cameras are revolutionizing observations of shallow cumulus clouds.

    A Challenging Future for Tropical Forests

    Mortality rates of moist tropical forests are on the rise due to environmental drivers and related mechanisms.

    Rapid Lake Draining on Ice Sheets Changes How Water Moves in Unexpected Ways

    Widespread fracturing during lake drainage triggers vertical shafts to form that affect the Greenland Ice Sheet.

    New Historical Emissions Trends Estimated with the Community Emissions Data System

    The data system will allow for more detailed, consistent, and up-to-date global emissions trends that will aid in understanding aerosol effects.

    Peering into the Mist: How Water Vapor Changes Metal at the Atomic Level

    New insights into molecular-level processes could help prevent corrosion and improve catalytic conversion.

    Microbial Types May Prove Key to Gas Releases from Thawing Permafrost

    Scientists discover key types of microbes that degrade organic matter and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

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    Researchers can precisely study how different genes affect key properties in a yeast used industrially to produce fuel and chemicals.

    How Plants Regulate Sugar Deposition in Cell Walls

    Identified genes involved in plant cell wall polysaccharide production and restructuring could aid in engineering bioenergy crops.

    Scientists Identify Gene Cluster in Budding Yeasts with Major Implications for Renewable Energy

    How yeast partition carbon into a metabolite may offer insights into boosting production for biofuels.

    More Designer Peptides, More Possibilities

    A combined experimental and modeling approach contributes to understanding small proteins with potential use in industrial, therapeutic applications.


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