Mineral dust is the most important natural aerosol type by mass, with northern Africa the most prominent source region worldwide. Dust particles are lifted into the atmosphere by strong winds over arid or semiarid soils through a range of emission mechanisms, the most important of which is saltation. Dust particles are mixed vertically by turbulent eddies in the desert boundary layer (up to 6km) or even higher by convective and frontal circulations. The meteorological systems that generate winds strong enough for dust mobilization cover scales from dust devils (~100m) to large dust outbreaks related to low- and high-pressure systems over subtropical northern Africa (thousands of kilometers) and include prominent atmospheric features such as the morning breakdown of low-level jets forming in the stable nighttime boundary layer and cold pools emanating from deep convective systems (so-called haboobs). Dust particles are transported in considerable amounts from northern Africa to remote regions such as the Americas and Europe. The removal of dust particles from the atmosphere occurs through gravitational settling, molecular and turbulent diffusion (dry deposition), as well as in-cloud and sub-cloud scavenging (wet deposition). Advances in satellite technology and numerical dust models (including operational weather prediction systems) have led to considerable progress in quantifying the temporal and spatial variability of dust from Africa, but large uncertainties remain for practically all stages of the dust cycle. The annual cycle of dustiness is dominated by the seasonal shift of rains associated with the West African monsoon and the Mediterranean storm track. In summer, maximum dust loadings are observed over Mauritania and Mali, and the main export is directed toward the Caribbean Sea, creating the so-called elevated Saharan Air Layer. In winter the northeasterly harmattan winds transport dust to the tropical Atlantic and across to southern America, usually in a shallower layer. Mineral dust has a multitude of impacts on climate and weather systems but also on humans (air pollution, visibility, erosion). Nutrients contained in dust fertilize marine and terrestrial ecosystems and therefore impact the global carbon cycle. Dust affects the energy budget directly through interactions with short- and long-wave radiation, with details depending crucially on particle size, shape, and chemical composition. Mineral dust particles are the most important ice-nuclei worldwide and can also serve as condensation nuclei in liquid clouds, but details are not well understood. The resulting modifications to cloud characteristics and precipitation can again affect the energy (and water) budget. Complicated responses and feedbacks on atmospheric dynamics are known, including impacts on regional-scale circulations, sea-surface temperatures, surface fluxes and boundary layer mixing, vertical stability, near-surface winds, soil moisture, and vegetation (and therefore again dust emission). A prominent example of such complex interactions is the anti-correlation between African dust and Atlantic hurricane activity from weekly to decadal timescales, the causes of which remain difficult to disentangle. Particularly in the early 21st century, research on African dust intensified substantially and became more interdisciplinary, leading to some significant advances in our understanding of this fascinating and multifaceted element of the Earth system.
Bjørn H. Samset
Among the factors that affect the climate, few are as diverse and challenging to understand as aerosols. Minute particles suspended in the atmosphere, aerosols are emitted through a wide range of natural and industrial processes, and are transported around the globe by winds and weather. Once airborne, they affect the climate both directly, through scattering and absorption of solar radiation, and indirectly, through their impact on cloud properties. Combining all their effects, anthropogenic changes to aerosol concentrations are estimated to have had a climate impact over the industrial era that is second only to CO2. Their atmospheric lifetime of only a few days, however, makes their climate effects substantially different from those of well-mixed greenhouse gases. Major aerosol types include sea salt, dust, sulfate compounds, and black carbon—or soot—from incomplete combustion. Of these, most scatter incoming sunlight back to space, and thus mainly cool the climate. Black carbon, however, absorbs sunlight, and therefore acts as a heating agent much like a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, aerosols can act as cloud condensation nuclei, causing clouds to become whiter—and thus more reflecting—further cooling the surface. Black carbon is again a special case, acting to change the stability of the atmosphere through local heating of the upper air, and also changing the albedo of the surface when it is deposited on snow and ice, for example. The wide range of climate interactions that aerosols have, and the fact that their distribution depends on the weather at the time and location of emission, lead to large uncertainties in the scientific assessment of their impact. This in turn leads to uncertainties in our present understanding of the climate sensitivity, because while aerosols have predominantly acted to oppose 20th-century global warming by greenhouse gases, the magnitude of aerosol effects on climate is highly uncertain. Finally, aerosols are important for large-scale climate events such as major volcanoes, or the threat of nuclear winter. The relative ease with which they can be produced and distributed has led to suggestions for using targeted aerosol emissions to counteract global warming—so-called climate engineering.
William K. M. Lau
Situated at the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau (TP), the Hindu-Kush-Himalayas-Gangetic (HKHG) region is under the clear and present danger of climate change. Flash-flood, landslide, and debris flow caused by extreme precipitation, as well as rapidly melting glaciers, threaten the water resources and livelihood of more than 1.2 billion people living in the region. Rapid industrialization and increased populations in recent decades have resulted in severe atmospheric and environmental pollution in the region. Because of its unique topography and dense population, the HKHG is not only a major source of pollution aerosol emissions, but also a major receptor of large quantities of natural dust aerosols transported from the deserts of West Asia and the Middle East during the premonsoon and early monsoon season (April–June). The dust aerosols, combined with local emissions of light-absorbing aerosols, that is, black carbon (BC), organic carbon (OC), and mineral dust, can (a) provide additional powerful heating to the atmosphere and (b) allow more sunlight to penetrate the snow layer by darkening the snow surface. Both effects will lead to accelerated melting of snowpack and glaciers in the HKHG region, amplifying the greenhouse warming effect. In addition, these light-absorbing aerosols can interact with monsoon winds and precipitation, affecting extreme precipitation events in the HKHG, as well as weather variability and climate change over the TP and the greater Asian monsoon region.