Friday, November 14, 2008

Attack of the Huge Brown Cloud

The head line is silly, the threat is not, and it is a very real problem. So of course our 24 hour news cable channels will not find any time to cover it.

A U.N. report has been released that warns of a new problem in the global climate crisis that has been growing out of control. The newest problem is tick brown clouds of soot, pollution, and chemicals have gathered, and now stretch from Africa to China and the western Pacific Ocean. A look at a world map will show this area has the highest and densest population on the planet, so a threat to the food an water supply here would be catastrophic. And that is what these clouds are doing, they are threatening the health, water, and food supplies for over three billion people, which will then threaten the whole world.

At some points this brown cloud is a three kilometer-thick layer of soot and other manmade particles, which is the result of burning of fossil fuels and biomass.

The U.N. report released on Thursday, called these brown clouds the newest threat to the global environment, because they are intensifying global warming, reducing crop yields by blocking sunlight, and are contributing to extreme weather that also hurts agriculture production. These other extreme weather changes include a decrease in the monsoon rains over India, and the hastening the melting of the glaciers in northern Pakistan and India, with perhaps deadly implications for the rivers that flow from those headwaters. Pakistan without the "five rivers" and the Indus would be a wasteland.

"One of the most serious problems highlighted in the report is the documented retreat of the Hind Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, which provide the head-waters for most Asian rivers, and thus have serious implications for the water and food security of Asia," say's Professor Ramanathan of the the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California.
The polluted clouds come from burning fossil fuels.

USA Today reports today that, "The huge plumes have darkened 13 megacities in Asia and Africa — including Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, Nairobi, Cairo, Mumbai and New Delhi — sharply "dimming" the amount of light by as much as 25%in some places."

"Imagine for a moment a three-kilometer-thick (1.8-mile-thick) band of soot, particles, a cocktail of chemicals that stretches from the Arabic Peninsula to Asia," said Achim Steiner, U.N. undersecretary general and executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.
Paradoxily the brown clouds actually mask the full impact of global warming in the effected region by helping to cool the Earth's surface and tamp down rising temperatures because some of the particles that make up the clouds reflect sunlight and cool down the air.

The Associated Press reports that the "value of this study is that scientists looked at the effect of the brown clouds on multiple levels."

Ankur Desai, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison goes on to say:

"Quantifying the impact on people, ice, agriculture, etc., is certainly going to be useful," and "The study also brings together scientists who don't traditionally work together into thinking together about the impact, mitigation and fundamental science on how this works."
This huge brown cloud is going to have major impacts on air quality and agriculture in almost all of Asia, increasing risks to human health and food production for over three billion people. The time to act is now, before it is too late.

Five regional hotspots for this phenomenon have been indentified. These are:
  • East Asia, covering eastern China;

  • The Indo-Gangetic plains in South Asia from the northwest and northeast regions of eastern Pakistan across India to Bangladesh and Myanmar;

  • Southeast Asia, covering Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam;

  • Southern Africa extending southwards from sub-Saharan Africa into Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe; and

  • The Amazon Basin in South America.
The full report is here in pdf format.

No comments: