Harvard Gazette April 27, 2012
Climate scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences discovered that particulate pollution in the late 20th century created a “warming hole” over the eastern United States (a cold patch where the effects of global warming were temporarily obscured). Though greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane warm the Earth’s surface, these tiny particles in the air can have the reverse effect on regional scales.
The research has shown that particulate pollution over the eastern United States has delayed the warming that we would expect to see from increasing greenhouse gases. For the sake of protecting human health and reducing acid rain, emissions that lead to particulate pollution have been cut; but these cuts have caused the greenhouse warming in this region to ramp up to match the global trend.
The primary driver of the “warming hole” is aerosol pollution. These small particles reflect incoming sunlight, producing a cooling effect at the surface. This effect has been known for some time, but new analysis demonstrates the strong impact that decreases in particulate pollution can have on regional climate. Research has found that interactions between clouds and particles amplified the cooling by reflecting even more sunlight leading to greater cooling at the surface.
Since the early 20th century, global mean temperatures have risen by about 0.8 degrees Celsius from 1906 to 2005, but in the United States “warming hole,” temperatures decreased by as much as 1 degree Celsius during the period 1930 to 1990. This particulate pollution peaked in 1980 and has since been reduced to about half. By 2010 the average cooling effect over the East had fallen to just 0.3 degrees Celsius.
Though sulfates are harmful to human health and can also cause acid rain, which damages ecosystems and erodes buildings, the research indicates that improving air quality leads to regional warming. In regions like China, which are beginning to tighten up its pollution standards, declining levels of particulate pollutants could result in significant climate change.
Jacob Leibensperger (PhD Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences MIT) was the lead author, joined by Loretta J. Mickley (PhD Geophysical Sciences Harvard), Wei-Ting Chen and John H. Seinfeld (California Institute of Technology), Athanasios Nenes (Georgia Institute of Technology), Peter J. Adams (Carnegie Mellon University), David G. Streets (Argonne National Laboratory), Naresh Kumar (Electric Power Research Institute), and David Rind (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies).
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