Warming trends in Asia amplified by brown cloud solar absorption.Nature 2007; 448(7153):575-8Nat
Atmospheric brown clouds are mostly the result of biomass burning and fossil fuel consumption. They consist of a mixture of light-absorbing and light-scattering aerosols and therefore contribute to atmospheric solar heating and surface cooling. The sum of the two climate forcing terms-the net aerosol forcing effect-is thought to be negative and may have masked as much as half of the global warming attributed to the recent rapid rise in greenhouse gases. There is, however, at least a fourfold uncertainty in the aerosol forcing effect. Atmospheric solar heating is a significant source of the uncertainty, because current estimates are largely derived from model studies. Here we use three lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles that were vertically stacked between 0.5 and 3 km over the polluted Indian Ocean. These unmanned aerial vehicles deployed miniaturized instruments measuring aerosol concentrations, soot amount and solar fluxes. During 18 flight missions the three unmanned aerial vehicles were flown with a horizontal separation of tens of metres or less and a temporal separation of less than ten seconds, which made it possible to measure the atmospheric solar heating rates directly. We found that atmospheric brown clouds enhanced lower atmospheric solar heating by about 50 per cent. Our general circulation model simulations, which take into account the recently observed widespread occurrence of vertically extended atmospheric brown clouds over the Indian Ocean and Asia, suggest that atmospheric brown clouds contribute as much as the recent increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases to regional lower atmospheric warming trends. We propose that the combined warming trend of 0.25 K per decade may be sufficient to account for the observed retreat of the Himalayan glaciers.