The study found that tiny particles of dust, released into the air when dirt is broken apart, follow similar fragmentation patterns as glass.
Dust plays a crucial climate role because it can affect the amount of the sun's energy absorbed by the atmosphere. Dust can also help with cloud formation and distribution of nutrients, such as iron that is vital for plants.
Some particles reflect solar energy, acting as cooling agents, while some trap extra heat.
For example, microscopic clay particles remain in the atmosphere for about a week, helping cool the atmosphere by reflecting heat from the sun back into space. Larger dust particles drop back to earth more quickly and tend to have a heating effect.
The trick is to figure out how much of each type is in the atmosphere and the better the estimate, the more accurate the forecast.
Jasper Kok of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said his work suggested there could be several times more dust particles in the atmosphere than previously estimated.
This is because shattered dirt appeared to produce a much larger number of dust fragments, a finding that challenges assumptions used in complex computer programs to forecast the weather and future climate.
This is particularly the case for desert regions such as north Africa, parts of Australia and the southwestern United States, where winds can whip up large amounts of nutrient-rich dust into the air and across the sea.
That is crucial for scientists using computer climate models to simulate the amount of dust particles in the atmosphere to figure out the heating or cooling effect.
Kok said his work suggested the amount of microscopic clay particles might be overestimated in many models and that there might be much greater amounts of larger dust particles swirling around, particularly near desert regions.