Sunday, April 5, 2020
Home Features She Blinded Me With Science: Aerosols

She Blinded Me With Science: Aerosols

Let’s start with a sunset. If you live in Southern California and have an Instagram, you’ve probably taken more than a moment to admire a particularly striking one. The pinks and blues morphing together in the sky, pastel hues bouncing off the clouds as you stop what you’re doing to just go “Wow.”

If that sunset has been on any given evening in the past four months, you’re then susceptible to one of two extremes: it being a scorching 80+ degrees, or, that miraculous sunset is a break from a weird pseudo-rain storm.

Californians love to talk about the weather, and they love to complain about climate change and how it’s ruining the blissful temperatures the coastline is used to. El Nino offered an underwhelming change-up in our typical 75 degree and sunny attitudes. We’ve received some rain, but we’ve also had an unpleasant dosage of heat. These sweltering temps, no matter how nice they feel against our skin as we lounge poolside on a lazy Saturday afternoon, nonetheless leave us feeling a little too sweaty for comfort.

Now, let’s travel north on a classic road trip up the coast to San Francisco. No, we’re not going to Outside Lands or Haight-Ashbury; we’re going to the new LinkedIn Offices for the UC Grad Slam Competition. We’re going to learn some science.

Every year, one graduate student from each of the UCs gets chosen to present their research in front of a panel of judges. The catch is they only get three minutes each to sell these judges on research they’ve been working on for months—even years. It’s a Friday morning filled with nerves, suits, ground-breaking information and several cringe-worthy science puns that incite chuckles amongst the judges and audience members. Research ranged from figuring out why marine life loves to eat plastic to the benefits of renewable nanopower—which happened to be the subject of the winner, Peter Byrley of UC Riverside.

The last of the Grad Slam contestants, the one with perhaps the most quintessentially “California” research topic, was a girl born and raised in our Golden State: Mallory Hinks, from UC Irvine. Her research? “The Puzzling Colors of Climate Change.”

Going back to our sunset, let’s zoom in a little. We know about light waves traveling from the sun and, upon hitting Earth’s atmosphere, breaking off into a spectrum of specific colors. Making the sky blue during the day and more Instagram-worthy in the evening, as the distortion of the light waves becomes more extreme during a sunset.

We know that the atmosphere—that everything—contains molecules that zip around out of control in a gaseous state (like in the atmosphere), or slip by each other in a liquid (like in the ocean), or remain rigid and in a relatively fixed position in a solid state (like the chair you sit in).

We know at least a little bit about this ever-decreasing ozone layer that seems to be the main reason for climate change. As it melts, due to pollution and humans overall treating the planet like a disposable waste basket, temperatures continue to rise, impacting habitats and environments for all ecosystems.

How much do we know about aerosols, however? These tiny particles, suspended in the atmosphere, absorb light and then scatter it—producing haze and redder sunsets. If they exist lower in the atmosphere, they can even impact cloud formation and size, changing how clouds absorb and reflect sunlight. Which, again, influences our sunsets and our temperature increase. The three types of aerosols—volcanic, desert dust and those made by human activities—are a rather mysterious, not often discussed factor in this huge conversation about climate change.

Now, this is where Hinks steps in. Her research proposes that these aerosols in fact hold the key to controlling our rising temperatures. During her pitch, Hinks explains that scientists also divide aerosols into three colors: white, black or brown. In her research, she experimented with changing the colors of these particles.

“Think of the atmosphere as Earth’s t-shirt,” she proposes.

On a hot day, a black t-shirt absorbs more light, making you feel warmer. Well, the atmosphere is the same. A higher proportion of black aerosols in the sky means absorbing more sunlight and, thus, increasing the temperature of the atmosphere.

Hinks seeks to transform the brown aerosols to white ones in the hopes of lowering the atmospheric temperatures. To do this, of course, she needed a little magic. That is, Mallory’s Aerosol-Generating Irradiation Chamber. MAGIC. With her invention, Hinks found that brown aerosols change color faster in warmer temperatures, so we actually need heat in order to reduce it. In colder climates, the brown aerosols stay brown for longer, meaning that they will have a warming effect on that colder climate for a longer period of time.

Hinks’ research earned her a second-place prize at this year’s UC Grad Slam Competition. When she returns to UCI, she will find another series of beautiful pink sunsets and we will all think about how magical they are.