Thursday, March 22, 2018

These Climate Pollutants Don't Last Long, But They’re Wreaking Havoc on the Arctic

If we can cut back on methane, black carbon, and other short-lived climate pollutants, it could buy time to solve the trickier problem of CO2.

A UCLA research team takes measurements in Greenland, where soot has darkened the ice in some areas, contributing to melting. (Credit: Mia Bennett/Cryopolitics) Click to Enlarge)
When people talk about climate change, the focus is often on carbon dioxide, and for good reason.  The CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels today will hang around for centuries, building up over time and continuing to warm the planet.

It isn't the only culprit, though.  Mixing in are other pollutants that only stick around for a few weeks or years but pack a powerful punch while they're there.  And the Arctic, where the average temperature is rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, has become the unfortunate laboratory where researchers can best measure their impact.

The role that short-lived climate pollutants play in the Arctic has repercussions, because what happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet.

Tackling the problems raised by these potent pollutants—methane, black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) chief among them—offers a glimmer of opportunity for saving the rapidly warming Arctic.  If they can be significantly reduced, the impact will be felt almost immediately, giving countries much needed time to solve the trickier problem of CO2.

"The hope is that we can buy time by reducing short-lived climate forcers," said Patricia Quinn, an atmospheric chemist researching these pollutants at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ice that blankets the Arctic region reflects the sun's rays and helps regulate the Earth's climate.  But as temperatures rise and sea ice levels drop to record lows, more of the dark ocean is exposed, and the sun's warmth is absorbed instead of reflected.  The warming leads to more warming, which leads to more warming—and so on.

In this chain reaction, the jet stream can shift, affecting weather everywhere.  Higher temperatures thaw the permafrost, releasing unknown amounts of methane as generations of frozen plants and organic materials begin to decompose.  Then there's the potential for zombie diseases, dormant for millennia, to see new life, and for the melting of glaciers to raise sea level.

Save the Arctic, and we might just save ourselves.

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body that represents the eight Arctic nations and indigenous groups, has emphasized reducing black carbon and methane.

Mikael Hilden, who leads the council's Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane, said that by getting stakeholders to agree on reductions in these critical pollutants, change is possible.  "It's a relatively rapid action that you can see the results quite quickly," he said.

With that in mind, here's a breakdown of the big short-lived climate pollutants, and how they wreak havoc in the environment:

Read more at These Climate Pollutants Don't Last Long, But They’re Wreaking Havoc on the Arctic

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