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Quantification of dust-forced heating of the lower troposphere


Aerosols may affect climate through the absorption and scattering of solar radiation and, in the case of large dust particles, by interacting with thermal radiation1,2,3. But whether atmospheric temperature responds significantly to such forcing has not been determined; feedback mechanisms could increase or decrease the effects of the aerosol forcing. Here we present an indirect measure of the tropospheric temperature response by explaining the ‘errors’ in the NASA/Goddard model/data-assimilation system. These errors, which provide information about physical processes missing from the predictive model, have monthly mean patterns that bear a striking similarity to observed patterns of dust over the eastern tropical North Atlantic Ocean. This similarity, together with the high correlations between latitudinal location of inferred maximum atmospheric heating rates and that of the number of dusty days, suggests that dust aerosols are an important source of inaccuracies in numerical weather-prediction models in this region. For the average dust event, dust is estimated to heat the lower atmosphere (1.5–3.5 km altitude) by 0.2 K per day. At about 30 dusty days per year, the presence of the dust leads to a regional heating rate of 6 K per year.

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Figure 1: Right, monthly average image of the number of dusty days for five years from 1984 to 1988 for March, June, September and December, top to bottom; takenfrom ref. 12.
Figure 2: The latitudinal variation of both the maximum IAU(T) (dashed line) and the latitude of maximum dusty days (solid line).
Figure 3: The monthly heating rate in degrees Kelvin per day, as deduced from IAU(T) and the average number of dusty days.
Figure 4: Jittered scatter plot for IAU(T) versus number of dusty days for each pixel; 208 points for each month total of 2,496 points.

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This study was supported by the US–Israel Binational Science Foundation. During some of this work, P.A. held a National Research Council–NASA/GSFC research associateship. Our thanks to Y. Banjamini for statistical help with Fig. 4.

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Alpert, P., Kaufman, Y., Shay-El, Y. et al. Quantification of dust-forced heating of the lower troposphere. Nature 395, 367–370 (1998).

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