Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Storm force

Aerosols may intensify thunderstorms in the tropics.

February 23, 2021
storm
Pixabay

Scientists have known for decades that thunderstorms are often stronger where there are high concentrations of aerosolsairborne particles too small to see with the naked eye. Lightning flashes are more frequent along shipping routes, where freighters emit particulates into the air, than in the surrounding ocean. And the most intense thunderstorms in the tropics brew up over land, where aerosol levels are elevated by both natural and human-caused phenomena.

Now MIT scientists using idealized simulations of cloud dynamics have found that low-lying clouds with high aerosol concentrations are less likely to release water as rain. Instead, their water evaporates, creating a humid layer that makes it easier for air to rise quickly through the atmosphere as strong, storm-brewing updrafts.

“After you’ve established this humid layer relatively low in the atmosphere, you have a bubble of warm and moist air that can act as a seed for a thunderstorm,” says grad student Tristan Abbott, who coauthored a paper on the research with assistant professor of atmospheric science Tim Cronin. They say this “humidity-entrainment” mechanism, as they call it, could be incorporated into weather and climate models to help predict how a region’s thunderstorm activity might vary with changing aerosol levels.

“It’s possible that by cleaning up pollution, places might experience fewer storms,” says Cronin.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

It’s time to retire the term “user”

The proliferation of AI means we need a new word.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Sam Altman says helpful agents are poised to become AI’s killer function

Open AI’s CEO says we won’t need new hardware or lots more training data to get there.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.