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Ship Tracks Over Pacific Ocean Off Coast of California, USA

32.0N 122.6W

June 5th, 2012 Category: Clouds

USA - June 1st, 2012

The criss-crossed patterns of lines in the clouds off the coast of California, USA, are an atmospheric phenomenon known as ship tracks. These are clouds that form around the exhaust released by ships into the still ocean air.

Water molecules collect around the tiny particles (aerosols) from exhaust to form a cloud seed. More and more water accumulates on the seed until a visible cloud is formed. In the case of ship tracks, the cloud seeds are stretched over a long narrow path where the wind has blown the ship’s exhaust, so the resulting clouds resemble long strings over the ocean.

Ship tracks provide an excellent way of studying the direct and indirect climatic impacts aerosols could have. Scientists who study how human-produced aerosols affect cloud formation observe ship tracks because in most urban areas, they are unable to discern exactly how pollutants contribute to forming clouds because the atmosphere over the land is too tumultuous. In contrast, ships release their exhaust into the relatively clean and still marine air, where the scientists have an easier time of measuring the effects of fossil fuel emissions on cloud formation.

In general, the air above the oceans suffers from less turbulence and convection than the air above land. The lower atmosphere is especially calm over the eastern Pacific in the summertime due to a layer of hot air that settles in 500 to 700 meters above that region of the ocean. This effect creates a temperature inversion, placing a cap on the cooler air below, trapping pollutants and water vapor. While the inversion is responsible for the smog that reduces air quality in Los Angeles, it also allows for the formation of long lasting ship tracks. The particles billowing from ships’ smokestacks enter the air above the eastern Pacific and create long, thin clouds that remain there for days.

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