Political Cyclones in the World of Meteorology

William Krehm

The Wall Street Journal (6/05, "A Dirty Discovery Over Indian Ocean Sets Off a Fight" by John A. Fialka) presents evidence that not all weather turbulence is made in the skies: "La Jolla, Calif. – In 1999, Indian scientist Veerabhardan Ramanathan led a team of researchers that discovered one of the largest bodies of pollution ever measured. Using planes, ships, balloons and satellites, his multinational team of 200 scientists tracked a gritty brown blanket of soot, dust, and smoke nearly two miles thick, over an area of the Indian Ocean roughly the size of the US. Dubbed ‘Asian Brown Cloud’ the discovery opened a new frontier in atmospheric study. It suggested that man-made soot may be almost as critical a factor in causing climate change as the invisible layers of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases emitted from power plants, factories and cars.

"The research showed such clouds could blow thousands of miles, contributing to global warming and spreading harmful pollutants such as mercury and acids. Last August a United Nations agency warned the cloud could lead to ‘several hundreds of thousands of premature deaths’ from respiratory disease, as well as droughts and crop failures."

Since then political infighting is raising doubt that further funding will be forthcoming to allow these investigations to continue. Indian officials have denounced the research as a "scientific fraud" and in February pressured the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which was responsible for the project to cut off further assistance to it. The Asian Brown Cloud has been seized upon by the Bush Administration as evidence supporting its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. Under that 1997 treaty other industrial nations committed themselves to cutting their emissions of six greenhouse gases starting in 2008.

"Dr. Ramanathan, a 56-year-old atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, is originally from India. In his parental home, cooking was done with dried cow dung as cheap fuel. Accumulated soot from the dung fire blackened the kitchen walls, to the point of making it impossible to spot the cockroaches that multiplied in the heat and camouflage.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of finger-pointing in the discourse of nations can be affected." There are precedents for such a situation. "A couple of decades back a group of scientists including Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Laureate in chemistry warned that an all-out nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US could produce a "nuclear winter.’ Nuclear explosions could blanket the skies around the earth with clouds that would shut out the sun’s rays and bring on crop failures and death. The debate went on amongst scientists until it became irrelevant because of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Brown Cloud Experiment

"Dr. Crutzen helped Dr. Ramanathan organize the Brown Cloud experiment. The work involved challenges in the field of international diplomacy as much as in science. Dr. Kiehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Col., recalls when some of Ramanathan’s colleagues expressed doubt that he would find much pollution over the Indian Ocean. But Ramanathan was convinced he would. He had discussed with Crutzen plans for a large experiment to track pollution in Asia. It was all put together by 1999 under the name INDOEX – $25,000,000 of financing the technology and apparently the political support for prying into unorthodox territory to track down the possible effects of pollution in upsetting our weather patterns. Scientists were recruited from 15 different countries. 50 were from India as well as one of the research ships."

Ramanathan headed it from his headquarters in the Maldive islands, and from a C-130 military transport plane that permitted him to make several personal flights through the clouds of pollution.

The enthroned theory of "aerosols" – particles such as soot in the air – is that they soon drop back to earth – soon enough to make no significant contribution to the planet warming problem. It was part of the reigning faith that only greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide can be carried by prevailing winds for thousands of miles from where they were emitted.

Soot, being dark, absorbs sunlight and thus cools the surface of the earth. The lower temperatures of the ocean surface beneath reduces the evaporation of water, causing less rainfall and droughts. Asian pollution arising from hundreds of millions of dung-fired cooking devices and inefficient coal furnaces produces an inordinate amount of offending soot. Surabit Menon, at Columbia University, studying Chinese data on coal-fired pollution and weather reports, concluded that soot pollution was causing more rain in the south and drought in the north.

Two years ago Hans Friedl, a senior research associate at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research was part of a project of scientists from 123 nations that used planes, satellites and ships to test pollution plumes blowing east from China’s seacoast. He found "the highest concentrations of pollution I have seen except when you fly into wildfires." He also ascertained that mercury is released in great quantities from coal fires. Mercury, a poison, stays in the atmosphere at least a year, during which it can circle the globe.

The Pollution of Ideology

And here Dr. Menon ran into a perfectly unforeseen type of pollution familiar to those of us who labour in vastly different fields – the barriers ideological orthodoxy throws up against scientific enquiry. Menon was deluged with e-mail from India in particular, accusing her of unjustly blaming Asia. The fact is that Dr. Menon just as Ramanathan – and many of the other scientists involved in this research – are Indians might seem to rule out such bias, quite apart from providing them with an intimate knowledge of the possible sources of the trouble in their native lands.

"The US also emits clouds of pollution that can reach Europe, Menon notes, but such clouds are brighter, partly because more efficient combustion processes create less soot. While the plumes from the US contribute to pollution, they contribute less to global warming because the lighter clouds reflect heat back into space rather than absorbing it, as would a darker cloud."

And here piety pollution entered the picture. India’s scientists, familiar with Ramanathan’s results for three years, were largely silent on the subject until UNEMP announced the Asian Brown Cloud in a London press conference last August shortly before a UN environmental conference in South Africa. Estimates that the offending cloud could reduce the sunlight hitting the earth by as much as 15% and reduce rainfall by up to 40% over much Asia – by far our mostly densely populated continent – prompted scare headlines throughout the media.

"That got Indian politicians fired up. Particularly painful for Ramanathan was that much of the criticism came from his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. This February at a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, T.R. Baalu, India’s Environment and Forests minister, backed by diplomats from Pakistan and Indonesia asked the UNEP to reject a request by Ramanathan and other scientists for more money to broaden their research to cover all of Asia. The objectors argued, by singling out Asia, the new research would reduce the pressure the Kyoto Treaty puts on Europe and the US to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

"It doesn’t help Dr. Ramanthan in his spat with India that the US, which paid for half of INDOEX, is delighted with his work. James R. Mahoney, a meteorologist and assistant secretary of Commerce who coordinates overall research on climate changes for the Bush administration, says the discovery of the Asian Brown Cloud shows that the long-distance travel of airborne soot and similar pollutants may cause as much as half of the globe’s artificial warming.

"Following the cut in UN funding, the US will press leaders of industrial nations and members of the next international convention on climate change – scheduled for Milan in December – for funds for more satellites and earth observation stations that can provide better data.

"Meanwhile, Dr. Ramanthan has been pushing for a more diplomatically acceptable name for his cloud. The UN agency has changed it to ‘Atmospheric Brown Cloud.’"

The whole disturbing episode should alert us to the same pattern that has made necessary the continued use of coal and cow-dung where cleaner sources of heat could be made available.

William Krehm

— from Economic Reform, Sep. 2003