• An Erratum to this article was published on 21 May 2009

Abstract

Aerosol particles can interact with water vapour in the atmosphere, facilitating the condensation of water and the formation of clouds. At temperatures below 273 K, a fraction of atmospheric particles act as sites for ice-crystal formation. Atmospheric ice crystals—which are incorporated into clouds that cover more than a third of the globe1—are thought to initiate most of the terrestrial precipitation2. Before the switch to unleaded fuel last century, the atmosphere contained substantial quantities of particulate lead; whether this influenced ice-crystal formation is not clear. Here, we combine field observations of ice-crystal residues with laboratory measurements of artificial clouds, to show that anthropogenic lead-containing particles are among the most efficient ice-forming substances commonly found in the atmosphere3. Using a global climate model, we estimate that up to 0.8 W m−2 more long-wave radiation is emitted when 100% of ice-forming particles contain lead, compared with when no particles contain lead. We suggest that post-industrial emissions of particulate lead may have offset a proportion of the warming attributed to greenhouse gases.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. J. DeMott, D. M. Murphy and D. S. Thomson for their assistance with the measurements. We also acknowledge the effort of all of the participants of the INSPECT and CLACE field studies, the support of the High Altitude Research Foundation Gornergrat and Jungfraujoch and the experimental group at AIDA. This research was supported by the Atmospheric Composition Change the European Network for Excellence, ETH Zurich, the German Research Foundation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory directed research funding.

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Affiliations

  1. Atmospheric Sciences and Global Change Division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 902 Battelle Blvd, Richland, Washington 99354, USA

    • Daniel J. Cziczo
  2. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, Universitätstrasse 16, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Daniel J. Cziczo
    • , Olaf Stetzer
    • , Stephane J. Gallavardin
    •  & Ulrike Lohmann
  3. Institute for Applied Geosciences, Technical University Darmstadt, Schnittspahnstraße 9, D-64287 Darmstadt, Germany

    • Annette Worringen
    • , Martin Ebert
    •  & Stephan Weinbruch
  4. Institute for Atmospheric Physics, Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz, Joh.-Joachim-Becher-Weg 21, D-55099 Mainz, Germany

    • Michael Kamphus
    • , Stephane J. Gallavardin
    • , Joachim Curtius
    •  & Stephan Borrmann
  5. Institute for Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Altenhöferallee 1, D-60438 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Joachim Curtius
  6. Particle Chemistry Department, Max Planck-Institute for Chemistry, D-55128 Mainz, Germany

    • Stephan Borrmann
  7. Chemical Sciences Division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 325 Broadway Ave., Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • Karl D. Froyd
  8. Leibniz-Institute for Tropospheric Research, D-04318 Leipzig, Germany

    • Stephan Mertes
  9. Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, Postfach 3640, D-76021 Karlsruhe, Germany

    • Ottmar Möhler

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Contributions

D.J.C., single-particle mass spectrometry, data analysis and paper writing; O.S., ice nucleation experiments and data analysis; A.W., M.E. and S.W., sample acquisition, electron microscopy and data interpretation and analysis; M.K., S.J.G., J.C. and S.B., mass spectrometer development, sample acquisition for single-particle mass spectrometry and data analysis; S.M., ice crystal sample acquisition and data analysis; O.M. and K.D.F., conducted AIDA experiments and data analysis; U.L., GCM programming and data analysis.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel J. Cziczo.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo499

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