This discovery is huge. Trees can seed clouds.
Molecules released by trees can seed clouds, two experiments have revealed. The findings, published on 25 May in Nature1, 2 and Science3, run contrary to an assumption that the pollutant sulphuric acid is required for a certain type of cloud formation — and suggest that climate predictions may have underestimated the role that clouds had in shaping the pre-industrial climate.
If the results of the experiments hold up, predictions of future climate change should take them into account, says Reto Knutti, a climate modeller at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich). For 20 or more years, clouds have been the largest source of uncertainty in understanding how manmade emissions affect the atmosphere, he says.
In addition to releasing carbon dioxide, burning fossil fuels indirectly produces sulphuric acid, which is known to seed clouds. So, climate scientists have assumed that since pre-industrial times, there has been a large increase in cloud cover, which is thought to have an overall cooling effect by reflecting sunlight back into space. And they have assumed that this overall cooling effect has partially masked the climate’s underlying sensitivity to rising carbon dioxide levels. The latest experiments suggest that it may have been cloudier in pre-industrial times than previously thought.
If this is so, then the masking effect, and in turn the warming effects of carbon dioxide, might have been overestimated, says Jasper Kirkby, a physicist at the CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, who led one of the experiments.