Researchers in the United Kingdom have finally been able to nail down and measure the impacts of the elusive Criegee biradical (or Criegee intermediate) – an atmospheric molecule that could be one of the keys to stopping advanced climate change. Criegee biradicals form when ozone reacts with an alkene – the resulting molecules are missing two chemical bonds and are therefore able to react with pollutants like nitrous dioxide, sulfuric dioxide and nitric oxide. This final reaction produces aerosols, tiny particles that reflect solar radiation away from the Earth. Though this whole process was hypothesized in the 1950s by Rudolf Criegee, it wasn’t known if it was an important factor in cooling the atmosphere. With the result of the recent study, scientists involved say we should be taking these Criegee biradicals a bit more seriously – apparently, their ability to cool the atmosphere is much more powerful than we ever could have imagined.

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The scientists are quick to note that they aren’t close to producing Criegee biradicals in a way that could allow them to use them for geoengineering of the atmosphere — though they also won’t rule that possibility out. 90% of the alkenes that react with ozone in the atmosphere to form a Criegee biradical come from the Earth’s ecosystems — though a small amount of alkenes come from petroleum production the vast majority of them come from plants — so while the researchers can’t say they’ll be able to produce these artificially they are emphatic that preservation of Earth’s dynamic natural environments is the best way to keep these molecules coming. The study was just published in Science and was conducted by scientists from The University of Manchester, The University of Bristol and Sandia National Laboratories.

“The ecosystem is negating climate change more efficiently than we thought it was,” study co-author Carl Percival, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, told MSNBC. “The most important message here is that we need to protect the ecosystems we have left.” The recent discovery of the power of Criegee biradicals to create aerosols that can cool the planet leads scientists to believe that this could be the beginning of a larger understanding of how the Earth has potential to cool itself — if the human race doesn’t get in the way of it.