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Study: Ship Emissions Make Thunderstorms More Intense

Thunderstorms directly above the busiest shipping lanes are significantly more powerful than the storms in areas of ocean where ships do not navigate, according to a new University of Washington research.

The study published Sept. 7 in Geophysical Research Letters found that particles from ship exhaust make cloud droplets smaller lifting them higher in the atmosphere thereby resulting ice particles which leads to more lightning. This is the first evidence that humans are changing cloud formation almost on a nearly continual basis. Cloud formation can affect rainfall patterns and alter climate by changing how much sunlight clouds reflect to space.

“It’s one of the clearest examples of how humans are actually changing the intensity of storm processes on Earth through the emission of particulates from combustion,” said lead author Joel Thornton, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

All combustion engines emit exhaust, which contains microscopic particles of soot and compounds of nitrogen and sulfur. These particles, known as aerosols, form the smog and haze typical of large cities. They also act as cloud condensation nuclei – the seeds on which clouds form. Water vapor condenses around aerosols in the atmosphere, creating droplets that make up clouds.

Cargo ships crossing oceans emit exhaust continuously and scientists can use ship exhaust to better understand how aerosols affect cloud formation.

Co-author Katrina Virts, a former UW postdoctoral researcher who is now an atmospheric scientist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was analyzing data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network, a UW-based network of sensors that locates lightning strokes all over the globe, when she noticed a nearly straight line of lightning strokes across the Indian Ocean.

 


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