By: Antonio Garces

Ever since I received my first watch I have been fascinated with the mechanics. Everyone is at least slightly curious about how the inside gears are so diligently constructed, work harmoniously and create one unifying action: telling time. Through lots of trial and error, a horologist meticulously works on different pieces of the watch until finally each sprocket spins when it’s supposed to, and all of a sudden the second hand starts to twirl around the face. Although a clock may have a simple function, it requires many working parts that all must cooperate as a system.

Analogously, all of the Earth’s omnifarious biomes require a balanced biotic and abiotic cycle so that all organisms can flourish in the future. Many natural factors can disrupt the cycle, however, such as temperature changes, weather storms, wildfires, floods, overpopulation, and abiotic resources within each ecological niche. Although these key elements temporarily disrupt the balance of life in the environment, they help drive Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection, and the cycle can once again prosper. When a species of animals migrates to another location, over time their progeny will have acclimated to their surroundings and gain traits much different from their ancestors. Evolution is what helps all organisms coincide and bring the cycle back in harmony, but it does have one setback: time. Evolution is a slow process, so if too many components disrupt nature, the cycle can never reach a relative equilibrium, and unfortunately, many of those factors have resulted from human behavior.

It all started when a man named Robert Fullerton composed a fully functional steam boat that would eventually spark one of the greatest technological revolutions in history. This craving for entrepreneurship completely changed the world through economics, business, and societal ideologies. Families started focusing more on education, augmenting knowledge, and inventing more technology with the sole purpose of improving society. However, as new technology expands, more ecological problems take place. Factories and fossil fuels are ruining the atmosphere, CFC chemicals from refrigerators continue to damage the ozone layer, pollution is destroying numerous ecological niches for animals, and the crave for resources is slowly crippling the natural integrity of Earth. All these damaged cogs in the clock are difficult to repair, and a horologist needs time to fix all of them. In terms of a smaller biochemical perspective towards climate change, scientists have been studying ways to buffer greenhouse gases and start fixing the clock. One very intriguing approach is the study of natural aerosols, and how they react to carbon-based gases in the atmosphere. This research is very recent, and many scientists are still struggling to figure out all the substances that aerosols carry into the atmosphere. However, the breakthroughs that they have uncovered entail that aerosols are the key to alleviating the impact of greenhouse gases. Studying the orientation and function of aerosols may give rise to an effective approach towards minimizing climate change and inspire the multitude to actually take action.

After constant research, many scientists have come to the conclusion that certain aerosols can make a decent impact towards greenhouse gases when viewed in the right light. Normally, when people hear the word aerosol they think about illnesses and how sneezing can cause air bubbles that help spread pathogens. However, we are going to focus on natural aerosols that carry beneficial viruses and bacteria that actually play a huge role in the atmosphere. In their report on “Marine Aerosols and Clouds,” scientists Sarah D. Brooks and Daniel C.O. Thornton write that, “Marine aerosol components may include soluble and insoluble compounds as well as surface-active proteins, carbohydrates, and exopolymers.” All these components must occur from the ocean, so Brooks and Thornton searched for what parts of the ocean and what organisms help form aerosols. After lots of research with phytoplankton, “Recent work suggests a direct coupling between photosynthetic biomass and the production of organic-rich marine primary aerosols (O’Dowd et al. 2004, 2015; Rinaldi et al. 2013; Sciare et al. 2009), indicating that recent biological activity and labile organic matter play an active role in primary aerosol formation.” These aerosols formed through biological assistance carry out sulfates and salts out into the atmosphere. Consistently repeated experiments have shown a substantial decrease in temperature from ocean spray and volcanic eruptions. Ocean spray releases lots of salt based aerosols that contain various polymers while volcanic eruptions release ridiculous amounts of sulfate-based gases into the atmosphere. One significant discovery regarding aerosols is that based off of their composition, they can transform into cloud condensation nuclei, or CCNs. Brooks and Thronton claim that “The nucleation of most cloud droplets does not occur by homogeneous nucleation of pure water. Instead, nucleation occurs on preexisting atmospheric particles, referred to as CCNs, which facilitate the condensation of water by acting as nucleation sites.” The only issue is that not all aerosols form into cooling particles due to the concentration of their internal components. Scientists explain that the dichotomy results from “a major limitation of using the κ parameterization. When water-soluble organics are present, their increased hygroscopicity leads to an improvement in CCN activity. However, CCN activity can also be improved by surfactants, which have characteristically low solubilities and low hygroscopicities, because they partition to the droplet surface, reducing the surface tension of the droplet required for CCN activation.” This setback applies only to aerosols that become water nucleating particles. When it comes to ice nucleating particles, which are also substances that cool down the environment, there are other complex problems. One of the biggest issues is the salt in ocean spray. There is a confusing correlation between salts and the formation of INPs which are crucial to the nucleation of ice in the atmosphere. This complex biochemical relation is what keeps holding scientists back.

Despite these setbacks, however, successful information regarding the atmosphere has been uncovered, such as aerosols reacting with the atmosphere and becoming chemicals that help with cool cloud formation. In another article, “Ozone depletion and climate change: impacts on UV radiation,” authors A F Bais, R L McKenzie, G Bernhard, P J Aucamp, M Ilyas, S Madronich, K Tourpali, have claimed that “reductions of aerosols over the most populated areas of the northern hemisphere may result in 10–20% increases in UV.” Aerosols can completely cool down the stratosphere by absorbing UV radiation and reacting with gaseous air particles. Aerosols play a crucial role in the atmosphere due to their interaction with solar photons, but after decades of poor treatment to the environment, aerosols’ absorption efficacy has decreased. “The total AOD includes both scattering and absorption, but it is predominately the absorption that is most important in reducing the intensity of UV irradiance at the Earth’s surface. For example, decreases in AOD account for 4.2% of the UV-A irradiance increase at Thessaloniki during 1998–2006, while the additional 2% increase can only be explained if the absorption efficiency of aerosols has also decreased over that period.” These scientists have developed a relatively accurate equation that identifies the absorption capabilities of an aerosol. They can then calculate an estimate of how much reduction of UV radiation takes place within a certain area. The lack of absorption and inability to alleviate the intensity of solar photons has a complete correlation. Another concern is the lack of sulfide based aerosols that are currently in the atmosphere, scientist now are looking for a biogenic alternative that can cause the same effects.

After going more in-depth on the study of aerosols, it is quite evident that they play a crucial role in preventing extreme changes in atmospheric temperature. In Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, he says, “Stories of toxic build-up, massing greenhouse gases, and accelerated species loss due to ravaged habitats are all cataclysmic, but they are scientifically convoluted cataclysms in which casualties are postponed, often for generations.” It is true that many people currently do not care about global warming and other ecological issues mainly because the effects will not apply to them. Instead, they ignore the prevalent issues and leave the resulting damage to the next generation. This mentality will never fix climate change, but focusing on scientific research and inspiring others to make change will. By studying topics such as aerosols, helping the environment is an actual possibility.

Works Cited

  • Bais A.F., McKenzie R.L., Bernhard G., Aucamp P.J., Ilyas M, Madronich S., Tourpali K. “Ozone depletion and climate change: impacts on UV radiation.” Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2015 Jan; 14 (1):19-52. doi: 10.1039/c4pp90032d. PMID: 25380284.
  • Balmes J.R.. “Climate Change and Implications for Prevention: California’s Efforts to Provide Leadership.” Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2018 Apr; 15 (Suppl 2): S114-S117. doi: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.201706-476MG. PMID: 29676643.
  • Brooks S.D., Thornton D.C.O. “Marine Aerosols and Clouds.” Ann Rev Mar Sci. 2018 Jan 3; 10: 289-313. doi: 10.1146/annurev-marine-121916-063148. Epub 2017 Oct 13. PMID: 29029576.
    Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP. 2011.