According to Zhang, more intense storms can affect atmospheric temperatures on a regional scale. But the activity likely also impacts the general circulation of air and heat worldwide.
In fact, the results are highly relevant to recent findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that show the highest levels of global warming are occurring over the polar regions, the research team writes. (Related: "Global Warming 'Very Likely' Caused by Humans, World Climate Experts" [February 2, 2007].)
The stronger storms could be pushing heat and aerosols out into the atmosphere and northward, the scientists point out, which could be contributing to shrinking ice caps in the Arctic and may cause sea levels to rise.
Zhanqing Li is an atmospheric and oceanic scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Because of the magnitude of the influence of the pollution-climate interaction and its apparently far-reaching consequences, the new study "is of tremendous implication for climate studies," he said.
"While the underpinning cause for the linkage is not a completely new discovery, no one would have expected that the Asian pollution could influence such a mighty system so dramatically over such a short period and long distance," he wrote in a review of the paper.
Li says the paper may be as significant as a 2005 study of hurricanes led by Peter J. Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology. That research suggested that warming oceans have been driving an increase in severe hurricanes.
Between 1970 and 2004, the average tropical sea surface temperature rose by almost 1 °F (0.6 °C), coinciding with an increase in the number of Category Four and Five storms.
Zhang, meanwhile, hopes his latest paper will pave the way for future research.
"This is the first work to establish the connection between a large-scale weather system and human pollution," he said.
"More studies are needed to investigate the interaction between aerosols, clouds, and climate."
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