From: MIT News
Published August 28, 2015 02:31 PM

Can rain clean the atmosphere?

As a raindrop falls through the atmosphere, it can attract tens to hundreds of tiny aerosol particles to its surface before hitting the ground. The process by which droplets and aerosols attract is coagulation, a natural phenomenon that can act to clear the air of pollutants like soot, sulfates, and organic particles.

Atmospheric chemists at MIT have now determined just how effective rain is in cleaning the atmosphere. Given the altitude of a cloud, the size of its droplets, and the diameter and concentration of aerosols, the team can predict the likelihood that a raindrop will sweep a particle out of the atmosphere.

The researchers carried out experiments in the group’s MIT Collection Efficiency Chamber — a 3-foot-tall glass chamber that generates single droplets of rain at a controlled rate and size. As droplets fell through the chamber, researchers pumped in aerosol particles, and measured the rate at which droplets and aerosols merged, or coagulated.

From the measurements, they calculated rain’s coagulation efficiency — the ability of a droplet to attract particles as it falls. In general, they found that the smaller the droplet, the more likely it was to attract a particle. Conditions of low relative humidity also seemed to encourage coagulation.

Dan Cziczo, an associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at MIT, says the new results, published this month in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, represent the most accurate values of coagulation to date. These values, he says, may be extrapolated to predict rain’s potential to clear a range of particles in various environmental conditions.

“Say you’re a modeler and want to figure out how a cloud in Boston cleans the atmosphere versus one over Chicago that’s much higher in altitude — we want you to be able to do that, with this coagulation efficiency number we produce,” Cziczo says. “This can help address issues such as air quality and human health, as well as the effect of clouds on climate.”

The paper’s co-authors are postdoc Karin Ardon-Dryer and former postdoc Yi-Wen Huang.

Continue reading at MIT News.

Rain image via Shutterstock.

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