Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives

Ramanathan, V, Feng Y.  2009.  Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Atmospheric Environment. 43:37-50.

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Aerosols, Air pollution, atmospheric brown clouds, black carbon aerosols, dioxide, emissions, energy-balance, global warming, greenhouse gases, hydrological cycle, indian-ocean, solar-radiation, sulfate aerosols, surface, trends


Greenhouse gases (GHGs) warm the Surface and the atmosphere with significant implications for rainfall, retreat of glaciers and sea ice, sea level, among other factors. About 30 years ago, it was recognized that the increase in tropospheric ozone from air pollution (NO(x), CO and others) is an important greenhouse forcing term. In addition, the recognition of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on stratospheric ozone and its climate effects linked chemistry and climate strongly. What is less recognized, however, is a comparably major global problem dealing with air pollution. Until about ten years ago, air pollution was thought to be just an urban or a local problem. But new data have revealed that air pollution is transported across continents and ocean basins due to fast long-range transport, resulting in trans-oceanic and trans-continental plumes of atmospheric brown Clouds (ABCs) containing sub micron size particles, i.e., aerosols. ABCs intercept Sunlight by absorbing as well as reflecting it, both of which lead to a large surface dimming. The dimming effect is enhanced further because aerosols may nucleate more cloud droplets, which makes the clouds reflect More solar radiation. The dimming has a Surface cooling effect and decreases evaporation of moisture from the surface, thus slows down the hydrological cycle. On the other hand, absorption of solar radiation by black carbon and some organics increase atmospheric hearing and tend to amplify greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. ABCs are concentrated in regional and mega-city hot spots. Long-range transport from these hot spots causes widespread plumes over the adjacent oceans. Such a pattern Of regionally concentrated Surface dimming and atmospheric Solar heating, accompanied by widespread dimming over the oceans, gives rise to large regional effects. Only during the last decade, we have begun to comprehend the surprisingly large regional impacts. In S. Asia and N. Africa, the large north-south gradient in the ABC dimming has altered both the north-south gradients in sea Surface temperatures and land-ocean contrast in surface temperatures, which in turn slow down the monsoon circulation and decrease rainfall over the continents. On the other hand, heating by black carbon warms the atmosphere at elevated levels from 2 to 6 kin, where most tropical glaciers are located, thus strengthening the effect of GHGs on retreat of snow packs and glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers. Globally, the surface cooling effect of ABCs may have masked as Much 47% of the global warming by greenhouse gases, with an uncertainty range of 20-80%. This presents a dilemma since efforts to curb air pollution may unmask the ABC cooling effect and enhance the surface warming. Thus efforts to reduce GHGs and air pollution should be done under one common framework. The uncertainties in our understanding of the ABC effects are large, but we are discovering new ways in which human activities are changing the climate and the environment. (C) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.