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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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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