By: Kate Good
In the world of climate change there is much debate over the reality of greenhouse gases and the volatile nature of toxic chemical emissions. However, in a new study, published February 17, 2010, scientists are beginning to look at air pollution as a possible inhibitor of global warming.
The thick black clouds of smog produced from coal burning power plants in Asia seem to be having the reverse effect of warming in the atmosphere. In fact, the dark layer acts like an umbrella, blocking the sun’s radiation from reaching Earth’s surface reflecting them back into space.
The most recent work being done on the climate effects of air pollution is being done in New York at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by scientist Drew Shindell.
In Shindell’s study, a number of scenarios have been run for the years 2000-2080, putting controls on the output of SO2 and NOX from power plants. While initially SO2 creates a cooling effect, when unchecked, once controls are put on the warming potential of CO2 comes into effect. When run for longer time trials, without controls on SO2, the effects of CO2 eventually catch up to SO2, eliminating the net cooling effect.
In the 1970’s, the United States began the Clean Air Act, which cut emissions of SO2 and NOx to reduce acid rain and to improve public health. Many other industrial countries followed curbing their own emissions, interestingly, during this period global temperatures increased rapidly after having been stable in the preceding decades.
If having high levels of air pollution in fact produces lower global temperatures, all the work done by environmentalists in the past will be completely void.
Meinrat Andreae, an expert on aerosols from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, is quoted describing this phenomenon as, “enjoy now and make others pay later.”
While SO2 may seem like a good temporary fix to rising global temperatures, it is also a deathly chemical. Sulfur dioxide is associated with increased respiratory disease, difficulty in breathing and premature death. So, even though this chemical may aid in blocking the sun’s radiation, it is still a harsh chemical compound that is harmful to humans when present in air.