Shattered glass offers clues that may improve weather and climate forecasts

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Monday, January 3, 2011; 11:12 PM

Shattered glass offers clues that may improve weather and climate forecasts

Studying the way glass and other brittle objects shatter can help scientists hone their weather forecasts and climate predictions, according to a study released last week.

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that tiny particles of dust that released into the air when dirt is broken apart follow similar fragmentation patterns as glass.

Dust plays a crucial climate role because it can affect the amount of the sun's energy absorbed by the atmosphere. Dust can also help with cloud formation and the distribution of nutrients such as iron, which is vital for plants. Some particles reflect solar energy, acting as cooling agents, while some trap extra heat.

For example, microscopic clay particles remain in the atmosphere for about a week, helping cool the atmosphere by reflecting heat from the sun back into space. Larger dust particles drop back to earth more quickly and tend to have a heating effect.

The study's author, Jasper Kok of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said there may be several times more dust particles in the atmosphere than previously estimated, because shattered dirt appears to produce much more dust fragments than expected.

The finding challenges assumptions used in computer programs that forecast the weather and future climate.

"As small as they are, conglomerates of dust particles in soils behave the same way on impact as a glass dropped on a kitchen floor," Kok said in a statement. "Knowing this pattern can help us put together a clearer picture of what our future climate will look like."

"The idea that all these objects shatter in the same way is a beautiful thing, actually," Kok said. "It's nature's way of creating order in chaos."

- Reuters

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