Tropospheric aerosols influence Earth's radiation budget and climate by scattering and absorbing solar radiation (direct effects) and by modifying the reflectivity and extent of clouds (indirect effects). While aerosol forcing is arguably less important from a policy perspective than greenhouse gas forcing because of the short residence times of these aerosols (about a week) compared to the lifetimes of the well mixed greenhouse gases (decades to centuries), knowledge of aerosol forcing over the industrial period is essential to empirical inference of Earth's climate sensitivity from temperature change over this period and to evaluation of the performance of climate model simulations over this period. Accuracy in global-average forcing by anthropogenic aerosols required for these purposes is estimated to be ~0.5 W m-2 [Schwartz, J. Air Waste Management Assoc. 54, 1351-1359 (2004)]. For an accumulation-mode (radius 50-1000 nm) scattering aerosol above a dark surface the forcing per optical depth (at 550 nm) during daylight hours for cloud-free sky is 50 to 100 W m-2. Such a forcing intensity implies, taking into account 50% nighttime and ~50% cloud cover, that global average optical depth of anthropogenic aerosol must be known to 0.02 - 0.04, an accuracy achievable by careful ground-based measurements, but which would be difficult to achieve globally because of high spatial and temporal variation. Top-of-atmosphere forcing for a given optical depth is sensitive also to single scattering albedo, size distribution (as manifested in asymmetry parameter, backscatter fraction, or Angstrom exponent) and surface reflectance; these sensitivities are examined here. It is necessary as well to determine the fraction of forcing that is due to anthropogenic aerosol. Similar considerations apply to aerosol indirect forcing, which depends to first approximation on the number concentration of cloud condensation nuclei as a function of applied supersaturation, which depends on the size distribution, composition, and mixing state of the aerosol and which likewise must be ascribed to anthropogenic vs. natural aerosol. Indirect forcing is highly sensitive to aerosol perturbations; an increase cloud drop number concentration by 30% in clouds of intermediate reflectivity (30 - 70%) is calculated to result in a forcing of ~ -6 W m-2 locally and instantaneously, which corresponds to ~ -1 W m-2 globally, taking into account the climatological frequency of such clouds. These considerations place severe requirements on knowledge of aerosol distribution, properties, and attribution to sources.
This page was last updated 2005-05-23.
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