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Dust in the Wind Never Looked So Stunning

Watching sea salt, dust, and soot might not sound like the most exciting way to spend your Friday afternoon. But put aside your prejudice for a second (or 177 seconds to be exact) and check out this video.

Winds are constantly moving these and other particles, called aerosols, through the earth’s atmosphere. The animation above from TED shows the meandering streams of air and particulate matter that move across our planet each day. Blue swirls show sea salt whipped off the ocean, red is dust, and white is pollution from volcanic eruptions and burning coal. The rod dots that cover the map represent forest fires burning from both natural and human causes.

The animation translates the particles from the mundane to the kaleidoscopic as they move throughout the atmosphere. More than just a pretty visual, though, these shifting particles are all major drivers of our climate. They form the nucleus around which raindrops and snowflakes can form, affect hurricane formation, and reflect incoming radiation from the sun into space, helping cool the planet.

Research from scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory indicates that aerosols from volcanic eruptions contributed to the recent “hiatus” in global warming. Understanding how the cooling effect of aerosol emissions from natural and manmade sources could interact with the warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions is one of the key questions scientists are trying to answer in determining what our future climate will look like.

In keeping with last Friday's diversion, this animation is also silent. While it may bring to mind Kansas' "Dust in the Wind," we suggest pairing it with the almost as aptly-name Riders on the Storm.

The animation comes courtesy of climate models, which NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt discussed in his recent TED Talk. In it, Schmidt talks about the role computer models play in helping scientists tease out the answer to that and other climate questions. If you’ve got another 730 seconds to spare, it’s well worth a watch.

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