Learning about climate change with trees and stainless steel

Learning about climate change with trees and stainless steel

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CERN, in Switzerland, is home to largest particle physics laboratory in the world. At the network of seven accelerators and two decelerators they not only smash particles together at high speeds but they also carry out other diverse experiments, like those of Lubna Dada. 

Lubna Dada runs cloud based experiments in the 7,000-gallon stainless steel chamber at CERN. Lubna studies how natural emissions react with ozone to create aerosols that affect our climate. Clouds represent the most significant variable in climate forecasts, harbouring a considerable level of uncertainty. Their impact varies depending on location; they can either deflect sunlight, providing a slight respite from the warming trend, or act as a thermal blanket, intensifying heat over polar ice regions. Understanding the mechanisms triggering cloud formation is crucial for determining whether their influence leans towards cooling or heating effects. “We want to know how we humans have changed clouds,” explains Lubna.

In the atmosphere, aerosol particles draw in water vapor or ice, forming small moist clusters that eventually develop into cloud seeds. Roughly half of Earth’s cloud cover originates from materials such as sand, salt, soot, smoke, and dust, while the remaining half forms around vapours emitted by natural or human sources, such as sulphur dioxide produced by the combustion of fossil fuels.

At CERN, scientists emulate this process by infusing the steel chamber with vapours that mirror particular environments. Lubna and her team of international scientists aim to reproduce the atmospheric conditions above forests, as an untouched atmosphere offers insights into cloud formation before the era of industrialisation. “We need this comparison to the time when there were no human emissions,” she says, “so we can fix our climate models.”

Dada's latest research centres on a neglected category of less common volatile compounds known as sesquiterpenes. These compounds emit aromas ranging from woody and earthy to citrusy or spicy, depending on the specific molecule and the type of plant or microorganism producing them. The team demonstrates that sesquiterpenes surpass expectations in their effectiveness for cloud seeding. Even a minimal 1-to-50 ratio of sesquiterpene to other volatile compounds resulted in a doubling of cloud formation.

Understanding the role of trees in cloud seeding is significant, as it provides insight into the potential atmospheric conditions of regions where sulfur emissions are effectively controlled by governments. In a less polluted world, vegetation, particularly trees, will play a more prominent role in driving cloud formation, reminiscent of pre-modern times.

This research has the potential to refine our understanding of the atmospheric composition before the industrial era. It raises the possibility that a significant portion of aerosols originating from trees may have been overlooked, potentially necessitating adjustments to climate models.

Enhanced climate models will enable scientists to anticipate the most effective mitigation strategies, as Dada explains: "Whether we require more clouds or fewer clouds." However, the challenge lies in the considerable computational complexity of climate models. Integrating the physics of minute entities like tree aerosols may prove to be a daunting task.


Our stainless steel extractor canopies would be idea for dealing with large build-ups of cloud in the house! they are perfect for a chemical laboratory, or we can tailor-make canopies for a catering environment.

I connected my phone to the cloud the other day... I had 10 mist calls!