Clarifying the Dominant Sources and Mechanisms of Cirrus Cloud Formation

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Science  14 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6138, pp. 1320-1324
DOI: 10.1126/science.1234145

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Dusty Origins

The formation of cirrus clouds begins with the production of ice nuclei, on which water vapor then condenses. Cziczo et al. (p. 1320, published online 9 May) determined the kinds of particles on which cirrus ice crystals form by sublimating samples collected by research aircraft and analyzing the chemical and physical properties of the residual seeds. Most of the seed particles were either mineral dust or metallic.


Formation of cirrus clouds depends on the availability of ice nuclei to begin condensation of atmospheric water vapor. Although it is known that only a small fraction of atmospheric aerosols are efficient ice nuclei, the critical ingredients that make those aerosols so effective have not been established. We have determined in situ the composition of the residual particles within cirrus crystals after the ice was sublimated. Our results demonstrate that mineral dust and metallic particles are the dominant source of residual particles, whereas sulfate and organic particles are underrepresented, and elemental carbon and biological materials are essentially absent. Further, composition analysis combined with relative humidity measurements suggests that heterogeneous freezing was the dominant formation mechanism of these clouds.

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