Loadings of tropospheric aerosols have increased substantially over the past 150 years as a consequence of industrial activities. These aerosols enhance reflection of solar radiation by the earth-atmosphere system both directly, by scattering light in clear air and, indirectly, by increasing the reflectivity of clouds. The magnitude of the resultant decrease in absorption of solar radiation is estimated to be comparable on global average to the enhancement in infrared forcing at the tropopause due to increases in concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases over the same time period. Estimates of the aerosol shortwave forcing are quite uncertain, by more than a factor of two about the current best estimates. This article reviews the atmospheric chemistry and microphysical processes that govern the loading and light scattering properties of the aerosol particles responsible for the direct effect and delineates the basis for the present estimates of the magnitude and uncertainty in the resultant radiative forcing. The principal sources of uncertainty are in the loading of anthropogenic aerosols, which is highly variable spatially and temporally because of the relatively short residence time of these aerosols (ca. 1 week) and the episodic removal in precipitation, and in the dependence of light scattering on particle size, and in turn on relative humidity. Uncertainty in aerosol forcing is the greatest source of uncertainty in radiative forcing of climate over the industrial period. At the high end of the uncertainty range the aerosol forcing is comparable to the anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, and substantially greater in industrialized regions. Even at the low end of the range the aerosol forcing cannot be neglected in considerations of influences on climate over the industrial period. This uncertainty greatly limits the ability to draw empirical inferences of climate sensitivity to radiative forcing.
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