Ship Tracks Reveal Pollution's Effects on Clouds

  • Released Thursday, June 3rd, 2010
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:54PM

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.



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NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio


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