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Study Finds Black Carbon a Significant Factor in Melting of Himalayan Glaciers

A team of researchers from the US and India has found that airborne black carbon aerosols, or soot, from India is a major contributor to the decline in snow and ice cover on the glaciers in the Himalayan mountains.

Our simulations showed greenhouse gases alone are not nearly enough to be responsible for the snow melt. Most of the change in snow and ice cover—about 90 percent—is from aerosols. Black carbon alone contributes at least 30% of this sum.

—Surabi Menon, physicist and staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division

Menon
Change in annual linear snow cover from 1990 to 2001. The thick blue band across the Himalayas designates decreases of at least 16%, while a few smaller patches (red) saw increases. Menon et al. Click to enlarge.

Menon and her collaborators used two sets of aerosol inventories by Indian researchers to run their simulations; their results were published online in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

The actual contribution of black carbon, emitted largely as a result of burning fossil fuels and biomass, may be even higher than 30% because the inventories report less black carbon than what has been measured by observations at several stations in India. (However, these observations are too incomplete to be used in climate models.) “We may be underestimating the amount of black carbon by as much as a factor of four,” Menon says.

The findings are significant because they point to a simple way to make a swift impact on the snow melt.

Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 100 years, but black carbon doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for more than a few weeks, so the effects of controlling black carbon are much faster. If you control black carbon now, you’re going to see an immediate effect.

—Surabi Menon

The Himalayan glaciers are often referred to as the third polar ice cap because of the large amount of ice mass they hold. The glacial melt feeds rivers in China and throughout the Indian subcontinent and provide fresh water to more than one billion people.

Atmospheric aerosols are tiny particles containing nitrates, sulfates, carbon and other matter, and can influence the climate. Unlike other aerosols, black carbon absorbs sunlight, similar to greenhouse gases. But unlike greenhouse gases, black carbon does not heat up the surface; it warms only the atmosphere.

This warming is one of two ways in which black carbon melts snow and ice. The second effect results from the deposition of the black carbon on a white surface, which produces an albedo effect that accelerates melting.

Black carbon, which is caused by incomplete combustion, is especially prevalent in India and China; satellite images clearly show that its levels there have climbed dramatically in the last few decades. The main reason for the increase is the accelerated economic activity in India and China over the last 20 years; top sources of black carbon include shipping, vehicle emissions, coal burning and inefficient stoves. According to Menon’s data, black carbon emitted in India increased by 46% from 1990 to 2000 and by another 51% from 2000 to 2010.

Black carbon’s effect on snow is not linear. Menon’s simulations show that snow and ice cover over the Himalayas declined an average of about one percent from 1990 to 2000 due to aerosols that originated from India. Her study did not include particles that may have originated from China, also known to be a large source of black carbon.

Menon’s study also found that black carbon affects precipitation and is a major factor in triggering extreme weather in eastern India and Bangladesh, where cyclones, hurricanes and flooding are common. It also contributes to the decrease in rainfall over central India. Because black carbon heats the atmosphere, it changes the local heating profile, which increases convection, one of the primary causes of precipitation. While this results in more intense rainfall in some regions, it leads to less in other regions. The pattern is very similar to a study Menon led in 2002, which found that black carbon led to droughts in northern China and extreme floods in southern China.

The black carbon from India is contributing to the melting of the glaciers, it’s contributing to extreme precipitation, and if black carbon can be controlled more easily than greenhouse gases like CO2, then it makes sense for India to regulate black carbon emissions.

—Surabi Menon

Resources

Comments

mahonj

Oh No, a problem we could solve.
The Greens won't like that.

stomv

This problem isn't very easy to solve, contrary to mahonj's juvenile comment. China and India combine for what, 2+ billion people? While some carbon is coming from major infrastructure like shipping vehicles, much of it is coming from diffuse sources like personal vehicles and stoves. These emissions have increased 225%ish since 1990, and are growing at a rate of 4%-5% a year. Merely leveling them off is a massive challenge... bending the curve downward? That's tough to do when it involves the cooperation of 2 billion people, most of whom are living in poverty conditions.

HarveyD

stomv:

I agree with you. It is a deep challenge to apply all the changes required in 100+ countries, inlucing China and India.

A good project for an internationnal organisation. Reduction of black carbon + many other fine airborne particles can be done, but should be addressed worldwide.

Naysayers and interested groups will (as ususal) fight and counter any positive actions. Coal and diesel lobbies will go on overtime.

The Goracle

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Our simulations (lol!) showed greenhouse gases alone are not nearly enough to be responsible for the snow melt

WHAT?!?!?!? Just a few days ago the UN was talking about Global Warming® (since rebranded Climate Change®, since rebranded CO2 Pollution®) completely eliminating said glaciers. OK... so they retracted that from their Nobel Prize winning report because it was a lie - no biggie!!! All "science" reports are supposed to have a slew of "irrefutable" lies in them. That's what makes them "science."

We MUST have these Global Warming® (since rebranded Climate Change®, since rebranded CO2 Pollution®) skeptics FIRED for blaspheming the Globalwarmist line. How DARE they say that Global Warming® (since rebranded Climate Change®, since rebranded CO2 Pollution®) is NOT the cause of all devastation on Earth.

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mahonj

The problem is caused by soot from incomplete combustion.

This is a much easier problem to solve than trying to stop burning fossil fuel altogether (to reduce CO2).

They have designed clean burning stoves for villagers in India, and power stations and buses can be cleaned up/banned by legislation. Diesel buses have been banned in New Delhi and replaced with Nat gas ones.

It suits everyone, especially the villagers who need to gather less firewood for a given heating effect.

This is a large, but solvable problem, solvable with today's technology.

The Goracle

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Of course the solution is more coal fired electric cars.

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SJC

I would say that all those coal fired power plants in China contribute to this. That is why China going to EVs is problematic, if they want EVs they are going to have to have cleaner sources for power.

Aaron Turpen

Well, at leas this latest climate change screed can be loosely attributed to something to do with the CAR in Green CAR Congress.

Otherwise, this is just more bunk from the propagandists. Since it's now well-established that the glaciers aren't really melting and the UN report that said they were was tripe.

I guess the Glaciergate, Climategate, and other "gate" press releases aren't on GCC's list of sources. Otherwise, there would be some fair and balanced reporting on this issue. Not that it has anything to do with C A R S.

Might be time to change the Green Car Congress name to Green Crap Congress to be more accurate. This incessant insertion of non-vehicle-related climate garbage is getting old.

sulleny

Okay look, since GCC insists on publishing these pathetic global warming diatribes let's clear up the most glaring BS first.

"The Himalayan glaciers are often referred to as the third polar ice cap because of the large amount of ice mass they hold."

Oh? How often?? Examples?? Consider this: Antarctic contains 90% of ALL ice on Earth. And 80% of ALL fresh water on Earth. Since the start of satellite records the Antarctic has GROWN about 4% in mass and ice extent.

IF China and India burn only low sulfur coal in fluid-bed furnaces with limestone scrubbing and particulate filtering - there is little problem. Next, get people clean burning stoves. Use new trade revenue and World Bank loans to finance.

Finally, please explain why we should find comfort in "peer-review" if the following statement passed muster:

"Menon’s study also found that black carbon affects precipitation and is a major factor in triggering extreme weather in eastern India and Bangladesh, where cyclones, hurricanes and flooding are common.

Prove it.

Aureon Kwolek

Lots of great comments, except the one criticizing this website. This is a great website. And you don’t see ads plastered everywhere. That ought to tell you something… The automotive world extends into energy, fuels, and pollution, and this site does an excellent job of covering the whole enchilada.

This study is significant. Hopefully, it will show us a new direction to take. That is, away from judging everything on a CO2 bases, which is the effect, and instead, straight to mitigating the direct cause – in this case Black Carbon Soot, also of the Sulfurous variety.

This study contributes a lot of information that was previously overlooked, or distorted by false conjectures that erroneously fingered CO2. The only problem I have with this report is the part where it says: “But unlike greenhouse gases, black carbon does not heat up the surface; it warms only the atmosphere.” I disagree with that:

When you have black carbon soot, laced with sulfurous and other chemical pollutants, falling-out onto ice and snow – forming black layers – When the sun hits that black soot, you’re going to have additional solar absorption, heating, and melting on the surface.

This is Not the “albedo effect”. That’s based on white snow and ice reflecting sunlight multiple times, which may be another factor. But snow and ice covered with black soot is going to lose most of its reflective properties, which will decrease the “albedo effect”. In my view, layers of black carbon soot on the surface of ice and snow is a major cause of melting - due to solar thermal absorption by the black soot. This should have been obvious.

HarveyD

Good point AK.

After many regulations and programs we still have a few million open wood fire places and coal fired power plants shooting out fine particles by the xxxx tonnes every day.

There have been some improvements but no where near enough. With the highest per capita GHG, USA and Canada can hardly be critical of China and India with much lower per capita GHG. We are examples NOT to follow.

sulleny

China - world's biggest polluter period. These nations have a chance now to install state of the art scrubbers. Since India has dropped the IPCC authority it'll be interesting to see if they give a rat's a*s about GHG from here on.

Pachauri has pretty well destroyed credence in AGW.

Arnold

"These nations have a chance now to install state of the art scrubbers."

All "state of the art" technology costs not just for development and new process, but for the intellectual property or patent.

If it is as important as we think it is then how can hazard reducing patents be justified?
We Have the same issues with madicine or pharma.

But in a country like USA with one of the least efficient and expensive health industries, That can't even get health care reform past for it's own, it is easy to see this just goes through to he keeper.

With many Indians and Chinese and others looking to develop better living standards, It is disingenuous to blame the same. ( But no doubt many of your mindless nationals would agree with your perspective.)

HarveyD

Why should China and India, (with per capita GHG 3x and 5x times lower than USA, Canada, Australia) have to reduce their pollution while we would carry on polluting at record levels?

sulleny


16 out of 20 world's most polluted cities are in China. It can be denied for political reasons only at the risk of human lives.

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Air_pollution_in_China

China and India both have real serious air quality problems. It's not a political issue (since we know AGW to be false) - rather a health issue for those nations. It is up to them to choose between economic expansion and high costs of health care or slightly less growth rate and healthier citizens.

As far as scrubbing goes, for the sulfurous pollutants all you need is limestone - a very cheap adsorbent. For particulates, 25-50-micron filtering should be a good start. Neither demands IP or patent payments.

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