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Clean Air = Reduced sulfates = Arctic warming?

Recent NASA research suggests that warming trends in the Arctic during the past 40 years aren’t due to CO2 emission increases. Instead, the spike in Arctic temperatures during the past forty years appears to be due to reduced aerosol particulates, specifically to reduced sulfates in the atmosphere. The sulfate reduction is believed to be the result of improved emission standards that were implemented to, ironically, improve the environment through reductions in acid rain. Aerosol sulfates reflect heat back into space, reducing temperatures, whereas different aerosols, termed “black carbon aerosols” and produced largely by burning coal, have the opposite effect: holding heat in.

To me, this doesn’t really prove anything other than the climate is a whole lot more complex than “A+B = C, therefore C-B = A”. Some of the ideas for “correcting” the CO2 imbalance could tip the climate in exactly the opposite way to what is intended. Hopefully we can figure out enough during the next couple of decades to prevent a knee-jerk change proposed by some enviro-evangelist causes a disaster beyond any that might have occurred “naturally”.

9 comments to Clean Air = Reduced sulfates = Arctic warming?

  • That’s why in the mid 80’s the idea of limiting carbon emissions was put forth. At the time scientists weren’t sure of the data or the full implications … but the possible consequences were severe. And climate being big, complex and poorly understood it only made sense to slow things down and buy some time and not depend on big interventions.

    That’s why I was in support of carbon caps and trades even though I had doubts as to the nature and extent of anthropocentric warming.

    But over 20 years have gone by since then, and we’ve exceeded the projections of that time … in short, I think it will be too late for passive approaches. We are going to have to intervene in our climate in an active and big way.

    Once you have eaten from the apple you cannot return to the garden. Like it or not we are now the stewards and controllers of our planets climate.

  • I’m doubtful that we have the knowledge to do anything more than reducing our impact. If we did something like start sequestering CO2 in the ocean, we could make things much, much worse. And if we based our decisions on this most recent study, we’d start burning dirty diesel or something, creating sun-reflecting particulates in the atmosphere while producing oh-so-helpful acid rain.

    I’m inclined to believe that we are a lot more ignorant than certain pundits would like us to believe. There are factors at work relating to the climate, both man-made and natural, that we barely know exist let alone understand in any way. I don’t think we would be wise to start huge projects, other than efforts to reduce our impact, to “engineer” the climate.

  • I agree, we don’t know what the heck we are doing.

    Unfortunately we have been conducting a massive intervention in our climate for some time. The lag time is such that we are only seeing clear results that we are the ones causing some effects now, after a quarter century of study.

    By all means we should try and quit this experiment before we start adding others into the mix. Hopefully that will be enough.
    But …

    We won’t know until really bad things start happening. And the lag time is such that if we we don’t do something drastic when the really bad things start, then by the time we get our “desperate climate control experiment #2” up and running things will be really really bad.

    Now for you or me, that probably isn’t going to matter. Unless they come up with longevity treatments we are going to check out around the time the really bad things are expected to start showing up.

    But if even the conservative CO2 pundits are right (if the non conservative projections are right it’s already too late,) then unless we do everything right over the next 20 years, then the people who are planning to be alive in the later part of the 21st century will have no option but to consider a choice between risky climate control experiments or dealing with billions of hot hungry and thirsty climate refugees.

    The whole point of limiting CO2 was never to stop global warming, but to put off as long as possible having to make that unpleasant choice.

  • Shane

    It sounds a lot to me like NASA is just re-visiting old news.

    Global dimming has been known about for quite awhile, and our “clean air policies” are actually causing more sun to hit the earth then in the 70’s. So we are heating up even faster.

    C02 is still the gas that keeps our earth’s heat from radiating back out into space.

    But for NASA to say that the ice caps aren’t melting because of C02 but because of an increasing amount of sun hitting the planet seems really stupid. Heat, not just sun melts ice.

    500 year ago, before particulate matter in the atmosphere was a big deal, our planet got the same amount of sun per day, as it does now…why weren’t the ice caps melting then??

    Us humans are a weird bunch, way back in the Cretaceous period, nearly everything died because either an asteroid impact or heightened volcanic activity. The Earth’s global temperature rose to a much higher temperature then we are at now, the ocean’s were about 17 degrees (C) warmer.

    Almost everything on the planet died, all of those critters and plants trapped the C02 (after millions of years) into the ground in the form of coal, oil, natural gas etc.

    So the earth “recovered” (over millions and millions of years) and it stored all of these C2 sinks all over the world, and what do we do? Over a period of 150 years we manage to dig up and burn up over half of these “sinks”. Re-releasing all of that C02 back into the air, we all need to give our heads a shake and look at what we are doing.

    I feel back for the “kids” who have to clean up this mess, hopefully I will be off the planet before all of the fish in the ocean are dead :\.

    I just don’t get why some people can’t seem to admit that C02 is
    a problem we cannot ignore, it seems NASA wants to ignore it as well…/boggle

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_dimming
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creataceous

  • I don’t think NASA is saying CO2 isn’t contributing (certainly I’m not). What I see in this report and others is that the climate is more complicated than one line headlines can convey. And I don’t think anyone filing the report thought they were introducing something completely novel: rather, it is more evidence to confirm the relationship.

    Reducing CO2 emissions is an obvious necessity. But some of the more extreme plans like carbon sequestering could, in the absence of understanding, result in much bigger problems than we already have. Reducing particulates in the atmosphere might, for example, make global warming much worse than it already is. My position is basically that knee-jerk reactions aren’t necessarily very smart when dealing with a system as complex as the climate. It is the old “butterfly syndrome”: changing one thing can have a surprising effect on something else.

    But in the end, it is all pretty irrelevant since we are all going to die in 2012 anyway 🙂

  • Shane

    Yeah I don’t think that “trapping” Co2 is a good idea, that kind of scares me.

    If they (us) could set up some sort of “scrubber” system that would actually take C02 out of the air for good, that would be a nice idea.

    Solar or wind powered, Co2 scrubbers for the win?! 🙂

    p.s. Right now I wish that global warming would be a little more localized..too cold here for the end of april :\

  • CO2 sequestration is okay, as long as you don’t dump it in the Oceans which are already acidifying, and when you pump it underground you realize it will be coming back eventually.

    In other words, use it to buy time, not as permanent fix.

    The economics of it are such that I don’t think it will be much of a worry anyway … if you have old oil and gas fields to inject the captured CO2 into, it might make economic sense, but otherwise it costs more to capture the CO2 that the money made from selling the power generated.

    This is the big issue facing the US. The great majority of it’s electricity is generated using coal. Because coal is cheap. ( As long as you don’t count the sludge ponds and the damage from strip mining. ) To make coal global warming friendly by capturing the CO2 it becomes expensive. Very, very expensive.

    To somewhat lesser degree that is the same issue facing the oil / tar sands. We can make them ‘clean’ but at $90 – $100 a barrel. And no one will pay that when they can buy mid east crude at $50.

    The difference with the oilsands is that Alberta looses it’s main source of disposable income … bad enough, but potentially survivable. For the US to go green in the time that we seem to have left means turning the lights out. Faced with that, denial is, unfortunately, understandable.

  • Denial: it’s not just a river in Egypt 😉

    I don’t know what the answer is. If you take the consensus view of the most commonly quoted scientists, it is already too late, and there is nothing we can do to fix the climate. If they are right, then what’s the point?

    Then there are those who think we have twenty or thirty years during which we have to somehow reverse a trend that we barely understand. That has some possibility: I mean look at population growth. When I was ten years old or so, the trends all indicated the global population would be around 20 billion by now. And of course, back in those days we were all expecting to die in a total, all out nuclear armageddon. Somehow humanity turned things around, not via some grand political/corporate program, but seemingly just via a societal shift.

    If most folks start realizing that there is something we can do, even if it seems small, and if we all “chip in”… will that be enough? If 3 out of 5 people choose to buy an economical car when, a few years ago, 3 out of 5 would have bought a big SUV. If 5% or 10% of our power comes from solar/wind/geothermal instead of 0.01%. If 60% of the incandescent lightbulbs are replaced with CFL or LED. Would all of these things combine together in a surprising way to shift the trends just enough?

    Again, the consensus seems to be saying “we are already screwed”, and that all the “little stuff” won’t help one bit. If the only way the tipping point can be avoided is if the entire world suddenly switches off the lights and goes back to living in caves, or if the only possible corrections are insane sounding radical solutions like pumping billions of tons of iron into the oceans that are just as likely to destroy the environment, well, what’s the point of even trying? I refuse to accept that.

    I guess we’ll see where we are in 30 years. There are all sorts of studies showing things like we will run out of all the metals we need for our high technology society by then as well. Undoubtedly, if we manage to dodge one self-generated catastrophe, there will be an even bigger one waiting for us. Hurray for humanity!

  • It’s why I stress we need to be more efficient, not more ‘green’. We tend to lurch from one crisis to another as a civilization, and we pull our bacon out of the frying pan at the last minute … only to find we are in the fire.

    We’ve solved some of the problems of poverty and overpopulation … but now we have the problem of those people wanting a higher standard of living.

    I think ‘too late’ for many scientist means that we will be too avoid having to make major interventions. And I think they hope they are wrong, but, if they are are right we had batter start thinking about it now so we are at least a bit more ready in 30 years.

    My personal hunch, based on little more than observation and a lifetime in a sub arctic climate is that it is already too late for most glaciers outside for the polar regions, and too late to stop a 2 meter sea level rise.

    For me that means no water in summer and for you it means Stanley Park becomes an island and YVR is under water. And I don’t think that justifies major interventions … we will just have to live with it. But if it is going to be even worse than that … big sun shades in space or spraying aerosols start to make a certain sense.

    I’m hoping we will make a change because it makes sense to people. Because the costs will start to be impossible to hide. And like the problems with DDT, Acid Rain, and Ozone we will have a few decades where it gets worse before it gets better, but 100 yeas from now things will be getting better.

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