The role of turbulent fluctuations in aerosol activation and cloud formation

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Atmospheric Sciences; Department of Physics


Aerosol indirect effects are one of the leading contributors to cloud radiative properties relevant to climate. Aerosol particles become cloud droplets when the ambient relative humidity (saturation ratio) exceeds a critical value, which depends on the particle size and chemical composition. In the traditional formulation of this problem, only average, uniform saturation ratios are considered. Using experiments and theory, we examine the effects of fluctuations, produced by turbulence. Our measurements, from a multiphase, turbulent cloud chamber, show a clear transition from a regime in which the mean saturation ratio dominates to one in which the fluctuations determine cloud properties. The laboratory measurements demonstrate cloud formation in mean-subsaturated conditions (i.e., relative humidity <100%) in the fluctuation-dominant activation regime. The theoretical framework developed to interpret these measurements predicts a transition from a mean- to a fluctuation-dominated regime, based on the relative values of the mean and standard deviation of the environmental saturation ratio and the critical saturation ratio at which aerosol particles activate or become droplets. The theory is similar to the concept of stochastic condensation and can be used in the context of the atmosphere to explore the conditions under which droplet activation is driven by fluctuations as opposed to mean supersaturation. It provides a basis for future development of cloud droplet activation parameterizations that go beyond the internally homogeneous parcel calculations that have been used in the past.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of American