A tiny particle that absorbs sunlight has an outsized effect on climate.
When wood, fossil fuels, and even dried dung burns at low temperatures, countless bits of carbonaceous material waft into the atmosphere as smoke. These charred bits of matter— known as soot—usually remain aloft for just a short period, but they have a major impact on humans nonetheless. The chain-like particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and contribute to asthma and cardiovascular disease. They also impact the climate. In fact, soot has such a powerful ability to absorb sunlight that climatologists call it "black carbon" and the ubiquitous particles are thought to be the second strongest contributor to global warming following only carbon dioxide. The data visualization above, based on data from NASA's GOCART model, simulates the atmospheric concentration of black carbon between August and November of 2009. This story is the first of a two-part series on black carbon, which will conclude on Thursday with a look at how the particles affect the Himalayan region.