What Our Smog Has Wrought

Have you heard about the great brown cloud? No, it’s not a new nickname for Donald Trump (his cloud is more an intergalactic nimbus of Aqua Velva and Tang), or the ominous menace in a new Stephen King novel. It’s almost as nasty, though.

The Atmospheric Brown Cloud, formerly known as the Asian Brown Cloud, is a mass of air pollution hovering over northern India along the southern Himalayas and down across Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. The cloud began growing shortly after World War II, a smoggy mass of soot and sulfates from diesel emissions, wood fires and other burning stuff that’s almost two miles thick.
A new study by scientists from a number of research organizations – including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography – finds that the cloud’s pollutants are making cyclones in the Arabian Sea more intense.
This is a very big deal, because, as Dean Kuipers writes in the Los Angeles Times, “After the apparent recent increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, climate watchers everywhere have speculated whether these storms were made stronger by industrial or man-made emissions. This is reportedly the first study to indicate that human activity may, in fact, affect large storms.”
Wind shear turbulence can help break up cyclones and keep them from becoming bigger storm systems. But shade created by the great brown cloud lowers water temperature, which in turn cuts down wind shear, allowing more powerful storms to form. Since 1998, according to NOAA, there have been five storms in the region with winds greater than 120 miles per hour – killing more than 3,500 people and generating $6.5 billion worth of damage.
Anjuli Bamzai, program director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, said, “This study is a striking example of how human actions, on a large enough scale, in this case massive regional air pollution caused by inefficient fuel combustion, can result in unintended consequences. These consequences include highly destructive summer cyclones that were rare or non-existent in this monsoon region 30 or so years ago.”
The good news, Amato Evan, lead author of the study and University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences, told the L.A. Times is that, “If emissions are reduced, we expect that this kind of trend would reverse on time scales of a few months. It’s not like greenhouse gases, where we think we’re already in trouble. With these kinds of aerosols, if you just stopped all the emissions right now, the atmosphere would become much cleaner in a matter of weeks. And then the whole climate system, the ocean and the atmosphere, would essentially lose memory of those aerosols. It’s pretty dramatic.”
But that’s about the only good news. The unsettling, worldwide evidence of climate change keeps pouring in. As the U.N.’s climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, began a couple of weeks ago (and ultimately made some small progress on carbon emissions), its World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presented data indicating that the last 15 years have been the warmest on record, with levels of greenhouse gases continuing to climb and potentially a global average temperature rise of two to 2.4 degrees Celsius on its way – anything above two degrees can lead to mass extinctions and other calamities. Michel Jarraud, the WMO’s secretary general pronounced, “Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities.”
A few days later, NOAA reported that, “To date, the United States set a record with 12 separate billion dollar weather/climate disasters in 2011, with an aggregate damage total of approximately $52 billion. This record year breaks the previous record of nine billion-dollar weather/climate disasters in one year, which occurred in 2008. These twelve disasters alone resulted in the tragic loss of 646 lives, with the National Weather Service reporting over 1,000 deaths across all weather categories for the year.”
In a recent speech at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco cited statistics from Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, which recently declared, “The only possible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” Lubchenco added, “What we’re seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying.” (At that same American Geophysical Union conference a biologist and photojournalist reported that with the reduction of Arctic sea ice habitat, polar bears are resorting – no joke — to cannibalism.)
Then the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) weighed in with an “Extreme Weather Map” (see it here). “In 2011, there were at least 2,941 monthly weather records broken by extreme events that struck communities in the U.S.,” the advocacy group announced. Each of the 50 states was affected. “The frequency and intensity of some extreme events is likely to worsen with climate change … [inflicting] tremendous costs on our health and families.”