Ship Tracks Reveal Pollution's Effects on Clouds

NASA's MODIS satellite instrument is revealing that humans may be changing our planet's brightness. Pollution in the atmosphere creates smaller, brighter cloud droplets that reflect more sunlight back to space and may have a slight impact on global warming.

This narrated visualization illustrates how we can study the effect against a clean backdrop by looking for zones of pollution in otherwise pristine air - in this case the North Pacific Ocean near the Aleutian islands. On an overcast day, the clouds look uniform. However, MODIS' sesor reveals a different picture - long skinny trails of brighter clouds hidden within. As ships travel across the ocean, pollution in the ships' exhaust create more cloud drops that are smaller in size, resulting in even brighter clouds. On clear days, ships can actually create new clouds. Water vapor condenses around the particles of pollution, forming streamers of clouds as the ships travel on. The ship tracks themselves are too small to impact global temperatures, but they help us understand how larger pollution sources such as industrial sites or agricultural burning might be changing clouds on a larger scale.

Visualization Credits

Helen-Nicole Kostis (UMBC): Lead Animator
Horace Mitchell (NASA/GSFC): Animator
Greg Shirah (NASA/GSFC): Animator
Ernie Wright (UMBC): Animator
Jefferson Beck (UMBC): Narrator
Jennifer A. Shoemaker (UMBC): Producer
Michael King (NASA/GSFC): Scientist
Galina Wind (SSAI): Scientist
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

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Data Used:
Terra and Aqua/MODIS/Band Combination 1, 4, 3

This item is part of this series:
Narrated Movies

DLESE >> Atmospheric science
SVS >> Clouds
DLESE >> Environmental science
SVS >> Global Warming
DLESE >> Human geography
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Atmosphere >> Atmospheric Phenomena
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Atmosphere >> Clouds
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Human Dimensions >> Environmental Impacts
DLESE >> Narrated
SVS >> Terra
SVS >> For Educators
SVS >> Pollution >> Distribution
NASA Science >> Earth

GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation: Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version