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Satellite Images Show Aerosols Emitted by Ships Quickly Merging With Clouds

Credit: Imperial College London.

Credit: Imperial College London.

At some areas in the open ocean, aerosol brought water droplets together to form new clouds.

Climate scientists at London and Leipzig have published a study that explains the response of clouds to the aerosol emitted by ships. The uncertainty of this interaction has been one of the key challenges in the path of building accurate climate models. The research, published on Monday in a journal named Atmospheric Chemistry and Physicsfound that aerosols released by ships can increase the reflectivity of the clouds. Clouds with increased reflectivity will reflect more amount of energy coming from the sun back into space. This leads to a decrease in the amount of energy that reaches the Earth’s surface. As a result, global heating is reduced.

Edward Gryspeerdt, Tom Goren, and Tristan WPSmith observed the tracks covered by ships and the response of clouds around those via satellite images. They used ship logs and wind formation to determine how long ago a ship passed through specific points. This led them to find a link between the aerosol emitted by a ship and the change in clouds around the track.

“This means that we can more accurately check the behaviour of clouds in weather and climate models, leading to better models and more accurate future climate projections,” said Greyspeerdt in an article published on the Imperial College website. The study was a combined effort of the researchers from Imperial College, London, University of Leipzig, Germany and University College, London.

According to the research, it took only one hour for a considerable increase in the number of water droplets in ship track clouds as they quickly formed around the aerosol released. However, some changes occurred 20 hours later. At some areas in the open ocean,aerosol brought water droplets together to form new clouds.


Over the open ocean, in the part of away from the coastal boundaries, the presence of other factors that can affect cloud changes is highly unlikely. This helped the scientists to almost purely study the link between aerosol and cloud changes making it a “natural experiment”.

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first published:April 27, 2021, 13:24 IST