DRI Scientists Conduct Climate Change Research in Maldives

Dr. Eric Wilcox and graduate student Nic Beres research pollution’s effects on clouds in the island nation most threatened by climate change.

DRI scientists conduct climate change research in MaldivesClick image to enlarge.Researchers from the Desert Research Institute worked with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) on the lowest elevation country on Earth to see how pollution affects the formation of clouds, which could be threatening the country’s future.

DRI researcher Eric Wilcox, Ph.D. and graduate student Nic Beres helped with the Cloud Aerosol Radiative Forcing Dynamics Experiment (CARDEX) in the Republic of the Maldives. The project was led by Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Ph.D. from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego to calculate the impact of smoke and pollution on clouds. The experiments consisted of three UAV, which measured three separate components of the project: pollution particles and effects of pollution and clouds on sunlight, the structure of the clouds, and the dynamics of the clouds and the lowest layer of the atmosphere.

“CARDEX is uniquely designed to measure both the response of cloud droplets and the response of cloud dynamics to pollution in the atmosphere,” Wilcox said.

CARDEX will analyze what the absorption of sunlight by soot particles can mean for climate change and global warming. Soot absorption warms the atmosphere. However, clouds formed with pollution in the environment are made up of a higher concentration of droplets than clouds formed in clean areas. This is because the particles act as surface area for water to condense to form cloud droplets. Clouds with smaller, more densely packed droplets reflect light from the sun back out to space more effectively than clouds of the same size forming in a clean environment, said Wilcox. This process of pollution causing clouds to be brighter has a cooling effect on the climate.

The pollution affecting this area is carried over the Indian Ocean by the trade winds and winter monsoon from India, which is roughly 250 miles northeast of the Maldives. The Maldives is the lowest country in the world, with an average natural elevation of 1.5 meters. Climate change and the rising of ocean levels threaten the Maldives with decreased land space and a potential to be completely covered by water in the future, making research on global warming a priority for the country.

In addition to the potential to understand more factors regarding climate change, this was an opportunity for DRI faculty and students to be involved in projects that span the globe and work with scientists from various prestigious institutions. Besides the two who worked in the Maldives, Hans Moosmüller from DRI and Pat Arnott from the University of Nevada, Reno developed and patented one of the instruments used.

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