Glass and dust: Study finds clues to climate change

A new study from NESL/CGD makes it hard to ever see a shattered drinking glass the same way. ASP postdoctoral researcher Jasper Kok has found clues to climate change in the way that glass and other brittle objects break.

Jasper’s study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December, finds that microscopic particles of dust, emitted into the atmosphere when dirt breaks apart, follow similar fragment patterns to broken glass. The research suggests there are several times more dust particles pumped into the atmosphere than previously thought, since shattered dirt appears to produce an unexpectedly high number of large dust fragments.

Because dust plays a significant role in controlling the amount of solar energy in the atmosphere, the research has implications for understanding future climate change. Some dust particles reflect solar energy and cool the planet, while others trap energy as heat, depending on their sizes and other characteristics.

“As small as they are, conglomerates of dust particles in soils behave the same way on impact as a glass dropped on a kitchen floor,” Kok says. “Knowing this pattern can help us put together a clearer picture of what our future climate will look like.”

The study may also improve the accuracy of weather forecasting, especially in dust-prone regions. Dust particles affect clouds and precipitation, as well as temperatures.


Image showing comparative diameters of dust in the atmosphere.
Dust particles in the atmosphere range from about 0.1 microns to 50 microns in diameter (microns are also known as micrometers; 1 micron = 0.025 inch). The size of dust particles determines how they affect climate and weather, influencing the amount of solar energy in the global atmosphere as well as the formation of clouds and precipitation in more dust-prone regions. The NASA satellite image in this illustration shows a 1992 dust storm over the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia. (Image ©UCAR.)