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Certain clouds collect air pollution from Earth's surface: UW

Pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) clouds remove air pollution from the earth's surface, bringing it into the stratosphere
forest fire AdobeStock_162698386
Stock photo.

Certain clouds have been discovered to draw air pollution on the earth's surface, which could lead to more insight to our role in climate change.

According to a release, atmospheric scientists from the University of Waterloo were able to track air pollution from forest fires in British Columbia and Australia in 2017 and 2019, using the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) SCISAT satellite, the only satellite in the world that can measure 44 different atmospheric molecules. 

Their research found that pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) clouds remove pollution from the earth's surface, bringing it into the stratosphere.

“These tall thunderclouds act like smokestacks that create a pathway for aerosols near the surface to be injected into the stratosphere. This is beneficial when it comes to the quality of the air that we breathe, but it’s important to note that these aerosols can still have repercussions on climate and atmospheric chemistry at higher altitudes,” said Chris Boone, the lead author of the study and project scientist on the SCISAT satellite at Waterloo, in the release.

The release says air pollution from forest fires turns into aerosols, small particles of dust and smoke originating from both natural and human sources. These aerosols can be harmful to human health if breathed in at high concentrations, and can impact the earth's surface temperature.

When these aerosols are drawn into the stratosphere, researchers say they mix with water vapours and chlorine molecules to cause a greenhouse effect that poses a risk to the ozone layer.

“The stratospheric pollution can persist for months following these intense fire events, creating a significant impact on our atmospheric system,” said Chris Boone in the release.

A changing climate can pose a risk of developing a cycle of frequent and more intense forest fires, a great concern for heavily forested areas like Canada. Researchers say these findings should be considered in further studies looking at the impact of aerosols on climate, or on the evolution of high-altitude smoke plumes, and on modeling these atmospheric effects.

“Our study provides insight into the composition of stratospheric aerosols generated from these intense fires, which could help us further understand what role they ultimately play in our climate,” said Boone in the release.

To learn more about this research, click here

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