December 16, 2009
Soot Pollution Melting Glaciers

These glaciers are a sign of what is going into your lungs. If we replaced all the world's coal electric power plants with nukes we'd breathe cleaner air and the glaciers wouldn't lose so much ice.

WASHINGTON – Black soot deposited on Tibetan glaciers has contributed significantly to the retreat of the world's largest non-polar ice masses, according to new research by scientists from NASA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Soot absorbs incoming solar radiation and can speed glacial melting when deposited on snow in sufficient quantities.

Temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau -- sometimes called Earth's "third pole" -- have warmed by 0.3°C (0.5°F) per decade over the past 30 years, about twice the rate of observed global temperature increases. New field research and ongoing quantitative modeling suggests that soot's warming influence on Tibetan glaciers could rival that of greenhouse gases.

"Tibet's glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate," said James Hansen, coauthor of the study and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City. "Black soot is probably responsible for as much as half of the glacial melt, and greenhouse gases are responsible for the rest."

"During the last 20 years, the black soot concentration has increased two- to three-fold relative to its concentration in 1975," said Junji Cao, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a coauthor of the paper.

The study was published December 7th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Fifty percent of the glaciers were retreating from 1950 to 1980 in the Tibetan region; that rose to 95 percent in the early 21st century," said Tandong Yao, director of the Chinese Academy's Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. Some glaciers are retreating so quickly that they could disappear by mid-century if current trends continue, the researchers suggest.

See this post over at Naked Capitalism (which includes quotes by James Hansen about soot pollution) about why soot pollution reduction should be a priority. Why not cut soot pollution ahead of carbon dioxide emissions. The move will certainly improve human health, reduce glacier melting (and therefore improve water supplies in the summer), and will have a cooling effect. Landscape darkened by soot absorbs more light and therefore heats up.

Soot in India draws more moisture and heat northward to do even more to melt the glaciers. Obviously India also should replace its coal electric plants with nuclear power plants.

The thick soot and dust layer absorbs solar radiation, and heats up the air around the Himalayan foothills. The warm, rising air enhances the seasonal northward flow of humid monsoon winds, forcing moisture and hot air up the slopes of the Himalayas.

As the aerosol particles rise on the warm, convecting air, they produce more rain over northern India and the Himalayan foothill, which further warms the atmosphere and fuels a "heat pump" that draws yet more warm air to the region.

"The phenomenon changes the timing and intensity of the monsoon, effectively transferring heat from the low-lying lands over the subcontinent to the atmosphere over the Tibetan Plateau, which in turn warms the high-altitude land surface and hastens glacial retreat," Lau said. His modeling shows that aerosols -- particularly black carbon and dust -- likely cause as much of the glacial retreat in the region as greenhouse gases via this "heat pump" effect.

Many rivers will be harmed by the loss of meltwater during the drier periods. Rising populations will of course make this problem much worse.

A unique landscape plays supporting actor in the melting drama. The Himalayas, which dominate the plateau region, are the source of meltwater for many of Asia's most important rivers—the Ganges and Indus in India, the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, the Salween through China, Thailand and Burma, the Mekong across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China. When fossil fuels are burned without enough oxygen to complete combustion, one of the byproducts is black carbon, an aerosol that absorbs solar radiation (Most classes of aerosols typically reflect incoming sunlight, causing a cooling effect). Rising populations in Asia, industrial and agricultural burning, and vehicle exhaust have thickened concentrations of black carbon in the air.

Update: One quarter of the soot could be removed for just $15 billion.

But one simple measure could slow warming in some of Earth’s most sensitive regions, effective immediately — and it would cost just $15 billion.

That’s a rough price tag for providing clean stoves to the 500 million households that use open fires, fed by wood and animal dung and coal, to heat their homes and cook.

This would improve the health of billions of people.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 December 16 06:07 PM  Pollution Trends

th said at December 17, 2009 3:57 PM:

So painting a roof white will work, but a few specks on a huge icecube are devastating, oh boy, the desperation is setting in.

Bob Badour said at December 17, 2009 7:50 PM:
it would cost just $15 billion.... clean stoves to the 500 million households that use open fires, fed by wood and animal dung and coal, to heat their homes and cook.

And just how exactly is a subsistence farmer in India who owns an ox and precious little else going to pay for the cleaner burning fuel to go into that clean stove replacing the byproduct he burns now for free?

Dowlan Smith said at December 18, 2009 11:42 AM:

I think they use the same fuel. Just more efficiently. A higher temperature burn can result in a more efficient complete burn. My brother has a wood stove that can get hot enough to burn the soot. It uses a secondary combustion chamber with a catalytic converter. He could get comperable heat output to my dad's older stove with third to a half of the fuel. Now compare that to an open flame.

Think about the indoor pollution as well.

Dowlan Smith said at December 18, 2009 12:00 PM:

Why stoves?
__The Problem__

In the late 1980’s, medical teams reported an alarming number of children being treated for burns and respiratory problems. A number of concerned volunteers found the problem emanated from the way people cooked.

Most of the poor continue to cook over indoor fires located on the floors of unventilated homes. These fires cause debilitating burns, skin and eye problems.

Excessive smoke in homes results in respiratory problems that, according to the World Health Organization, are the leading cause of death in children under the age of five. Testing of carbon monoxide, a deadly toxin, found readings in the homes to be as much as twice the level considered dangerous.

These inefficient open fires also result in massive deforestation.

__The Solution__
After an exhaustive investigation of the cultural and technological factors surrounding open fires, the new, fuel-efficient Ecocina stove was developed by StoveTeam International. It is economical to build and operate, saving up to 60% of the wood currently used while also reducing particulate matter and carbon output by 70%.

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