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Natural versus anthropogenic aerosols in climate forcing

Firmly establishing the influence of aerosols on cloud albedo — their forcing effect on climate in essence — is one of the greatest challenges of modern climate science. It is often tacitly assumed that the continued high uncertainties are linked mainly to anthropogenic emissions. In other words, if the anthropogenic effects could be better understood, so would the overall effect. Now Ken Carslaw and colleagues present an analysis of 28 parameters representing aerosol and precursor gas emissions and other factors that could influence cloud brightness. They find that only 34 per cent of the variance in aerosol forcing since pre-industrial times (around 1750) is associated with anthropogenic emissions, with 45 per cent of the variance linked to natural emissions of volcanic sulphur dioxide, marine dimethylsulphide and other natural sources. This work casts doubts on the degree of progress that can be made solely through advances in the understanding of anthropogenic aerosols and suggests that we need to discover more about the workings of the pre-industrial environment, when natural aerosols were predominant.

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