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Manchester boffins hunt tropical storms in Darwin

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Researchers from the University of Manchester are heading off to Australia next week in search of a better understanding of the role dust particles play in the weather, ozone layer depletion, and possibly even in climate change.

Yes, we know, it sounds like a lovely project: swapping a cold, gloomy Manchester winter for the beaches and barbies of Australian summer, but the team is actually headed to Darwin, where the rainy season is just about to begin. Useful, if what you want to study is the formation of tropical thunderstorms and the high-altitude clouds they produce.

The researchers will be studying aerosols, the tiny particles around which water vapour condenses and forms clouds. The kind of aerosol that seeds a cloud determines many of the cloud's future properties. They can be sea salt, desert dust, particles from pollution and so on.

Storms carry aerosols up into a layer of the atmosphere known as the Tropical Tropopause Layer, stuck somewhere between the main tropical weather systems and the stratosphere. What goes on in the region is relatively poorly understood, and the Manchester scientists are hoping this work will be revealing.

Professor Geraint Vaughan, who will lead the study, explained that understanding the atmospheric processes in the tropics is important because tropical weather systems drive global atmospheric circulation.

"Deep thunderstorms are a major feature of tropical weather, but their overall effect on the transport of material to high levels is poorly understood. This is important because it helps determine the composition of the stratosphere and the kinds of clouds which form high in the atmosphere."

He added: "If we can understand the nature and composition of these clouds, we will be able to use this information to help predict future climate change."

The scientists will fly two small planes through as many storms as they can over a four month period. The data will be used to create models of the storms, the clouds, and the chemicals they contain. ®

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