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Commercial Shipping Emits Almost Half As Much Particulate Pollution as Total Released by World’s Cars

Globally, commercial ships emit almost half as much particulate matter pollutants into the air as the total amount released by the world’s cars, according to a new study led by NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ship pollutants affect local air quality and the health of people living along coastlines. The findings appeared online 25 February in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The study is the first to provide a global estimate of maritime shipping’s total contribution to air particle pollution based on direct measurements of emissions. The authors estimate that globally, ships emit 0.9 teragrams, or about 2.2 million pounds, of particle pollution each year.

Since more than 70 percent of shipping traffic takes place within 250 miles of the coastline, this is a significant health concern for coastal communities.

—Daniel Lack, lead author, CU Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Earlier research by one of the study’s co-authors, James Corbett, of the University of Delaware, linked particle pollution to premature deaths among coastal populations.

During the summer of 2006, Lack and colleagues, aboard the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown, analyzed the exhaust from more than 200 commercial vessels, including cargo ships, tankers and cruise ships, in the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Bay, and the Houston Ship Channel. The researchers also examined the chemistry of particles in ship exhaust to understand what makes ships such hefty polluters. (Earlier post.)

Ships emit sulfates, the same particles associated with diesel-engine cars and trucks which motivated improvements in on-road vehicle fuel standards. Sulfate emissions from ships vary with the concentration of sulfur in ship fuel, the authors found. Globally, fuel sulfur content is regulated under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. As a result, some ships use “cleaner,” low-sulfur fuels, while others continue to use the high-sulfur counterparts.

Yet, sulfates make up just under half of shipping’s total particle emissions, according to the NOAA-CU study. Organic pollutants and sooty, black carbon, which make up the other half of emissions, are not directly targeted by today’s regulations. A 2008 study by Lack’s team focused exclusively on soot.

Emissions of these non-sulfate particles, the study found, depend on the operating speed of the engine and the amount of lubricating oil needed to deal with wear and tear from burning less-refined fuels.

Fortunately, engines burning ‘cleaner,’ low-sulfur fuels tend to require less complex lubricants. So the sulfur fuel regulations have the indirect effect of reducing the organic particles emitted.

—James Corbett

One surprising result of burning low-sulfur fuels: while total particle emissions diminish, the time the remaining particles spend in the air appears to increase. It’s while they’re airborne that particles pose a risk to human health and affect climate.

Lack and colleagues found that the organic and black carbon portion of ship exhaust is less likely to form cloud droplets. As a result, these particles remain suspended for longer periods of time before being washed to the ground through precipitation.

Commercial ships emit both particulate pollution and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide from ships makes up roughly 3% of all human-caused emissions of the gas. But particulate pollution and carbon dioxide have opposite effects on climate. The particles have a global cooling effect at least five times greater than the global warming effect from ships’ carbon dioxide emissions, Lack says.

NOAA-supported Cooperative Institutes are academic and nonprofit research institutions that demonstrate the highest level of performance and conduct research that supports NOAA’s Mission Goals and Strategic Plan.


  • Lack, D. A., et al. (2009), Particulate emissions from commercial shipping: Chemical, physical, and optical properties. J. Geophys. Res., 114, D00F04, doi:10.1029/2008JD011300



I would imagine that the negative on-land health ramifications in America are stronger on the Pacific coast than Atlantic... after all, the winds blow west to east.

Californians get the soot from cargo ships, and New Yorkers get the soot from Ohio coal fired power plants...


The Marpol Annex VI worlwide treaty, negotiated, completed and approved under the Bush Administration, Already solves this "problem". It regualtions improve the Tier I and II emissions controls, to tough Tier III and Tier IV levels, when its regulations are fully phased in, and implemented by 2018.

It is gettng progressively harder to find a new "doomsday scare" to feature.


I'm surprised the tree huggers haven't pushed for sailing ships to replace diesel powered freighters.

But then again sailing ships might endanger the habitat of the protected garter snake.


Actually, using the same technology to clean up locomotive diesel prime mover exhaust emissions, diesel-powered cargo ships can emit much lower exhaust emissions. They can use particulate traps that occasionally "burn off" the particulates, and careful control of the combustion process also means lower particulate output, too.

Andrey Levin

Ocean-going ships actually burn asphalt, or the ultimate garbage of oil refining. It is OK, as long as they are mid-ocean: all their pollution is very fast washed down and neutralized into ocean water.

Just switch to clean fuel when you approach the habitable coast.


Dilution is NOT the solution to pollution. Saying that they can pollute all they want while out at see is absurd. Spewing that junk is bad anywhere. California gets pollution from coal fired power plants in China, it just takes a few weeks to get there.

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