Effects of dust on climate change

 

Photo credit: Daily Bruin

Jasper Kok, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, is helping elucidate the role dust plays in climate change. He said dust can have either a net cooling or net heating effect on the atmosphere depending on the size of the particles. (Owen Emerson/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Professor works to clear up effects of dust on climate change

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Dust in the air can alter climate change in unpredictable ways, according to UCLA researchers.

Jasper Kok, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, published a paper in April detailing how aerosols such as desert dust can cause temperature and precipitation levels to fluctuate, accelerating climate change.

Kok said aerosols, or particles in the air, are important to consider in modeling climate change because the specks can scatter and absorb sunlight like greenhouse gases.

Additionally, aerosols can often act as the scaffolding upon which clouds can condense. Clouds regulate the temperature of the atmosphere by deflecting incoming sunlight or preventing heat from escaping into space.

“I think (studying desert dust) is the coolest because it’s a natural process, but it’s very much affected by human activity,” Kok said.

Kok said the Salton Sea, a saline lake in California’s Coachella Valley, shows how human actions can cause desertification. Changes in land use and irrigation led the Salton Sea to shrink in size, leaving behind a desert-like landscape that stirs dust up into the atmosphere, he said.

As a desert grows, the dust it produces leads to the atmosphere heating up, leading to more desertification and more dust in the air, Kok said.

“The abundance of particles in the atmosphere affects climate, but climate also affects the abundance of particles,” he said.

Kok said he was able to detect the highest concentrations of desert dust in the atmosphere by using satellite imagery. He added graduate students assisted in data collection by venturing into dust storms to measure the emission, size and quality of dust particles.

He said extraneous variables such as soil moisture and human activity can make it difficult to determine the impact of atmospheric dust on climate change.

“What will happen in the future is very unclear,” Kok said. “It depends on many different factors.”

Read the full article: Daily Bruin

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Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.