APR 06, 2020 5:44 AM PDT

Shipping pollution changes cloud composition

Research from scientists at the University of Washington suggests that pollution from container ships and other shipping traffic is significant enough to change cloud composition and ultimately has a cooling effect on the planet. The study was published in AGU Advances, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

"In climate models, if you simulate the world with sulfur emissions from shipping, and you simulate the world without these emissions, there is a pretty sizable cooling effect from changes in the model clouds due to shipping," said first author Michael Diamond, a UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. "But because there's so much natural variability it's been hard to see this effect in observations of the real world."

This long-term study is the first to contemplate the question of the cooling effect from shipping emissions at a regional scale. The researchers analyzed data from the Spring cloudy season between 2003-2015 over the common shipping route between Europe and South Africa, which overlaps with that between Europe and Asia.

The trail of fluffy white clouds that a shipping container leaves in its wake look similar to the contrails left by airplanes and show a physical representation of changes in cloud composition. The authors of the study say that they used satellite data to determine that the resulting clouds block an average of two additional Watts of solar energy from reaching each square meter of ocean surface near the shipping lane.

"The difference inside the shipping lane is small enough that we need about six years of data to confirm that it is real," said co-author Hannah Director. "However, if this small change occurred worldwide, it would be enough to affect global temperatures."

The researchers calculate that on a global scale cloud changes caused by particles from all forms of industrial pollution block one Watt of solar energy per square meter of Earth's surface. That has significant implications on current global warming: it blocks nearly one-third of the present-day warming that originates from greenhouse gases.

"I think the biggest contribution of this study is our ability to generalize, to calculate a global assessment of the overall impact of sulfate pollution on low clouds," said co-author Rob Wood, who is a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

Of course, these findings beg the question of what do to with this information. Recent research investigating climate intervention tactics often cites marine cloud brightening as a potential strategy to reduce warming, but the scientists of this study warn that we are far from understanding the potential consequences of such action.

"What this study doesn't tell us at all is: Is marine cloud brightening a good idea? Should we do it? There's a lot more research that needs to go into that, including from the social sciences and humanities," Diamond said. "It does tell us that these effects are possible -- and on a more cautionary note, that these effects might be difficult to confidently detect."

Sources: AGU Advances, Science Daily

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
MAR 18, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
MAR 18, 2020
Drug Treatments Used For Cattle Affect Wildlife
Common drug treatments used in cattle, such as de-worming and anti-ectoparasitic products, have held effect on wildlife ...
MAR 29, 2020
Earth & The Environment
MAR 29, 2020
Incinerators and landfills breed antibiotic resistant genes
Here’s a compelling reason to start composting: your municipal solid waste is producing airborne antibiotic-resist ...
APR 12, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
APR 12, 2020
Where we should turn our focus for ammonia emissions control
When you think of air pollution, you might not immediately think of ammonia. But in fact, when ammonia reacts with sulfu ...
APR 17, 2020
Earth & The Environment
APR 17, 2020
Earth Just Had its Second Warmest March
The planet continues to set climate records, which is certainly not great news. Earlier this week, the National Oceanic ...
MAY 04, 2020
Earth & The Environment
MAY 04, 2020
Predicting ocean acidification five years in the future
Research published recently in Nature Communications offers a new tool to predict ocean acidity years in the future. Whi ...
MAY 21, 2020
Earth & The Environment
MAY 21, 2020
Mapping wildfires with neural networks
Hydrology researchers have banded together with environmental engineers and remote sensing specialists to develop a deep ...
Loading Comments...