NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

THE SOURCE OF ASIA'S BROWN CLOUD FOUND

January 30, 2009

For years, South Asia has had a cloud of its head -- an unpleasant, unhealthy and climate-affecting soup of sooty haze that envelops the region, particularly in winter.  Scientists have studied what's called the "brown cloud" for years, yet there has always been uncertainty about it.  How much of the soot and other carbon-containing aerosols that make up the haze comes from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants and the like, and how much comes from burning wood and other biomass for cooking and agriculture?

According to researchers at Stockholm University the mystery of the Asia's brown cloud has been solved: 

  • Using carbon-14 dating of atmospheric soot sampled in early 2006 at Sinhagad in western India and Hanimaadhoo Island in the Maldives, the researchers made use of the fact that fossil fuels are millions of years old and thus, the carbon-14 (a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 5,700 years) has decayed away.
  • On the other hand, vegetation that is burned when fields are cleared, and wood and dung that are used for cooking, contain "young" carbon, with plenty of C-14.
  • Burning of biomass, they report, is the greater culprit.
  • They found that biomass combustion produced about two-thirds of the pollution, a much larger proportion than found in earlier studies that used different methodologies.

The findings suggest that controls on agricultural burning and improvements in cookstove technology to allow for more complete combustion could make as much of a difference, if not more, in lightening the skies over South Asia as efforts to restrict cars or build cleaner-burning power plants.

Source: Henry Fountain, "Study Pinpoints The Main Source of Asia's Brown Cloud," New York Times, January 27, 2009; based upon: Orjan Gustafsson et al., "Brown Clouds over South Asia: Biomass or Fossil Fuel Combustion?" Science, Vol. 323, No. 5913, January 2009.

For text:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/27/science/earth/27obbrown.html

For study:

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/323/5913/495

 

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