Eat, Prey, Rain


Cumulus clouds in fair weather

Cumulus clouds in fair weather - Image from Wikipedia

What do a herd of gazelles and a fluffy mass of clouds have in common? A mathematical formula that describes the population dynamics of such prey animals as gazelles and their predators has been used to model the relationship between cloud systems, rain and tiny floating particles called aerosols. This model may help climate scientists understand, among other things, how human-produced aerosols affect rainfall patterns. The research recently appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Clouds are major contributors to the climate system. In particular the shallow marine stratocumulus clouds that form huge cloud decks over the subtropical oceans cool the atmosphere by reflecting part of the incoming solar energy back to space. Drs. Ilan Koren of the Weizmann Institute’s Environmental Sciences and Energy Research Department (Faculty of Chemistry) and Graham Feingold of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, Colorado, found that equations for modeling prey-predator cycles in the animal world were a handy analogy for cloud-rain cycles: Just as respective predator and prey populations expand and contract at the expense of one another, so too rain depletes clouds, which grow again once the rain runs out. And just as the availability of grass affects herd size, the relative abundance of aerosols – which “feed” the clouds as droplets condense around them – affects the shapes of those clouds. A larger supply of airborne particles gives rise to more droplets, but these droplets are smaller and thus remain high up in the cloud rather than falling as rain.
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