Scientists studying the effects of particulate matter on cloud cover in the Amazon say increasing air pollution could have serious consequences for local weather patterns, rainfall and thunderstorms.

The results, published in Geophysical Research Letters, could be used by climate scientists trying to understand the impact of pollution on global weather patterns, the author says.

Researchers demonstrated how pollution's effects on cloud development could negatively impact our environment. While low levels of particulate matter actually help the development of thunderstorms, the reverse is true once a certain concentration is reached ― the particles then inhibit the formation of clouds and thunderstorms.

Researchers studied the effect air pollution on clouds over the Amazon.
(Photo credit: AFTAVU)

Scientists have long known that man-made aerosols affect cloud formation, but specific scientific findings have been inconclusive. How clouds and storms change in response to air pollution is central to the debate about climate change and global warming, since clouds have a general cooling effect on the Earth's climate.

But how man-made pollution impacts clouds, rainfall and weather patterns remains poorly understood, and natural particulates, such as those generated by Iceland's recent volcano eruptions may add to this effect. The thick volcanic ash cloud absorbs solar radiation, heating the upper atmosphere, similar to the forest fire smoke, and can hence also impact the development of clouds and rainfall

While studying the climatology of the Amazon forest during its annual dry season, the researchers noticed how thousands of man-made forest fires injected smoke into the atmosphere. Since thunderstorms still occur during the dry season, it was the perfect opportunity for studying the effects of these particulates on thundercloud development.

Cloud droplets form on small particles called "cloud condensation nuclei" (CCN). As the number of CCN increase due to the fire activity, the lightning activity increased in the storms ingesting the smoke. More CCN implies more small droplets that can be carried aloft into the upper parts of the cloud where lightning is generated. Increased lightning activity generally also implies increasing rainfall over the Amazon. But when particulate matter became too dense, they observed, clouds didn't form, and the lightning activity in thunderstorms diminished dramatically.

"One of the most debated topics related to future climate change is what will happen to clouds, and rainfall, if the earth warms up, and how will clouds react to more air pollution in the atmosphere," says co-author Colin Price from Tel Aviv University.

Clouds deflect the sun's rays, cooling the Earth's climate. If we change the duration of cloud cover, the aerial coverage of clouds, or the brightness of clouds, we can significantly impact the climate. And too many aerosols may have disastrous impacts on rainfall patterns as well.