Dirty, Deadly, Dangerous Soot

BY ON September 17, 2013

Mother and baby polar bear looking up at black snow falling from the sky. "That's not black snow honey, it's soot"Ever since man (and woman) figured out how to turn a spark into a flame, there has been soot. Soot, also known as particulate matter, and particle pollution doesn’t just come from fires,  it also comes from diesel engines, vehicle tailpipes, coal plant smokestacks, and oil refineries.

Whatever you call it, the stuff isn’t just dirty, it’s also deadly, causing thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks, and heart attacks each year. Soot is powerful stuff — so powerful, in fact, that a study completed earlier this year suggests that it killed the little ice age—a relatively cool period of 500 years that began near the end of the thirteenth century. According to a recent article in Nature by Quirin Schiermeier,

“Rising air pollution in the wake of the Industrial Revolution seems to be the explanation for a long-standing enigma in glaciology. The emission of soot from Europe’s proliferating factory smokestacks and steam locomotives explains why glaciers in the Alps began their retreat long before the climate warming caused by human activities kicked in…”

In fact, Alpine climate records suggest that rather than retreating, those glaciers should have continued growing until about 1910— about 10 years after global temperatures began to rise significantly. But, according to the article, when scientists drilled down into ice cores in the western Alps, they found that the layers of glacial ice that date back to around 1860 “…started to contain surprisingly large amounts of soot.” When soot is layered over ice and snow, it absorbs heat in the same way a city street does on a sizzling summer day, accelerating melting.

Records show that by the mid-nineteenth century the air in some Alpine valleys was so thick with the inky stuff that, according to the study’s co-author, glaciologist Georg Kaser, “Housewives in Innsbruck refrained from drying laundry outdoors.” Why does this matter? It matters because it highlights the power of a substance emitted from sources that range from a seemingly innocent campfire to power plants. Not only is soot by itself a threat to human health and delicate ecosystems, it is a potent contributor to global warming. Let’s not let climate change finish the glacier melt that soot started. As Kaser told Nature,

“If glaciers in the region continue to melt at the rate observed during the past 30 years, there is a risk that nearly all of them will vanish before the end of the century.”

Soot is but one piece of the climate change puzzle. Halting its progress will require a series of steps both big and small. One step we can take right now is to urge the Senate to pass what Dominique has dubbed the New Energy Bill, which will save us both energy and money while promoting practices that will help decrease greenhouse gas emissions. And it might just keep those glaciers from melting away too.

Cartoon: Liza Donnelly

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TOPICS: Climate Change, Soot