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Cooling the Earth: Pollution and Cosmic Rays

Pollution causes climate change and also helps prevent it, but what it does MOST is make it hard to forecast what will happen to our weather in the future (if you order our beautiful new crop circle calendar by Sept. 23 and use coupon 2012, you'll get $3 off!)

Aerosol particles, including soot and sulfur dioxide from burning fossil fuels, essentially mask the effects of greenhouse gases and are at the heart of the biggest uncertainty in climate change prediction, which is one reason (besides people being mired in denial) that we hear so many conflicting opinions about climate change.

New research shows that satellite-based projections of aerosols' effect on Earth's climate significantly underestimate their impacts. Aerosols are at the core of "cloud drops"--water particles suspended in air that coalesce to form precipitation. Increasing the number of aerosol particles causes an increase in the number of cloud drops, which results in brighter clouds that reflect more light and have a greater cooling effect on the planet. As to the extent of their cooling effect, scientists offer different scenarios that would raise the global average surface temperature during the next century.

Atmospheric scientist Joyce Penner and her colleagues found faults in the techniques that satellite estimates use to find the difference between cloud drop concentrations today and before the Industrial Revolution. Penner says, "The satellite estimates are way too small. We found that using satellite data to try to infer how much radiation is reflected today compared to the amount reflected in the pollution-free pre-industrial atmosphere is very inaccurate."

We may also be affected by cosmic rays: An experiment at CERN reveals that cosmic rays from deep space might be creating clouds in Earth's atmosphere and changing the climate. Astronomers have long known that charged particles from space are constantly bombarding the earth, but nobody knew what they might be doing to us. Now they theorize that they may be one of the things that is helping to cool down our planet as sunspots and human emissions heat it up.

As protons crash through the planet's atmosphere, they can ionize volatile compounds, causing them to condense into airborne droplets, or aerosols. Clouds might then build up around these droplets.

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