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Long-term impacts of aerosols on the vertical development of clouds and precipitation


Aerosols alter cloud density and the radiative balance of the atmosphere. This leads to changes in cloud microphysics and atmospheric stability, which can either suppress or foster the development of clouds and precipitation. The net effect is largely unknown, but depends on meteorological conditions and aerosol properties. Here, we examine the long-term impact of aerosols on the vertical development of clouds and rainfall frequencies, using a 10-year dataset of aerosol, cloud and meteorological variables collected in the Southern Great Plains in the United States. We show that cloud-top height and thickness increase with aerosol concentration measured near the ground in mixed-phase clouds—which contain both liquid water and ice—that have a warm, low base. We attribute the effect, which is most significant in summer, to an aerosol-induced invigoration of upward winds. In contrast, we find no change in cloud-top height and precipitation with aerosol concentration in clouds with no ice or cool bases. We further show that precipitation frequency and rain rate are altered by aerosols. Rain increases with aerosol concentration in deep clouds that have a high liquid-water content, but declines in clouds that have a low liquid-water content. Simulations using a cloud-resolving model confirm these observations. Our findings provide unprecedented insights of the long-term net impacts of aerosols on clouds and precipitation.

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Figure 1: Variations of cloud top temperature (CTT) with concentration of condensation nuclei (CN) for single-layer clouds.
Figure 2: Changes in cloud thickness with concentration of condensation nuclei (CN).
Figure 3: Frequency of occurrence for six bins of cloud top height and six subsets of concentration of condensation nuclei (CN).
Figure 4: Changes in rainfall frequency and rain rate distribution with concentration of condensation nuclei (CN).
Figure 5: Cloud base height (CBH) as a function of concentration of condensation nuclei (CN) for single-layer clouds during all summer seasons.
Figure 6: Modelled changes in cloud thickness, CTH, rain frequency and rain amount with CCN.


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The investigation would not be possible without the ARM measurements of the US Department of Energy, which also funds all investigators under its Atmospheric System Research programme. Z.L. was also supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (NNX08AH71G), the National Science Foundation (NSF) (AGS1118325), and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (2012CB955400, 2006CB403706).

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Z.L. initiated the project, led the study and wrote the manuscript. F.N. carried out data analyses, prepared the figures and documented the study. J.F. conducted model simulations. D.R. and Y.L. participated in science discussions and suggested analyses. Y.D. helped generate some supplementary figures.

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Correspondence to Zhanqing Li.

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Li, Z., Niu, F., Fan, J. et al. Long-term impacts of aerosols on the vertical development of clouds and precipitation. Nature Geosci 4, 888–894 (2011).

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