January 2, 2011

Black Carbon: Part 2 — Changing Glaciers in Asia

Black carbon (BC) or soot holds both peril and perhaps promise for Earth's climate system. The peril, of course, is that continued emissions will hasten ice melt, because of its heat-absorbing qualities, and thereby quicken global warming. The promise is if we can reduce the amount emitted soon (which is

technologically and clearly possible) warming will slow significantly. Reducing BC will give world leaders time to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) of concern.

This BC subject was first discussed in the December 5 Climate Science column in the Press Republican. It can be found on the opening page of let's continue.

biomass a culprit

In the developing countries the major sources of BC are from open cooking and/or open heating fires, using biomass (wood, crop residues, dried dung, and so on), as can be seen in the first image. Transportation, see second image courtesy of EPA, and rapid industrialization are other major sources.

More than 2 billion people currently use biomass energy which also has its attendant negative health effects which has been noted previously. The emissions primarily arise in India and China but surrounding countries also contribute and are impacted. Both sources of energy (biomass and fossil fuels) affect climate, but let's focus on the BC from biomass emitted in Asia.

'The third pole'

The next image is an overview of a portion of southern Asia centered on the Great Himalayan Range and the heavily populated region surrounding it. In the center one can see the Tibetan Plateau and mountain range, together with the surrounding countries from Afghanistan to the west, China to the north and east, and Southeast Asia on the lower right.

This central region is often called "The Third Pole" because of its low temperatures, extensive permafrost, and huge amount of ice and snow located on the peaks and high valleys in the region. It is estimated that there may be about 46,000 glaciers here, although there is no agreement on the exact number. The area thus holds an enormous amount of frozen water.

This Third Pole is also known as "Asia's water tower" in the same sense as the water towers we have in Plattsburgh, Chazy and elsewhere supplying us with potable water. This glacial water source is of enormous importance to people living downstream in terms of water supply and irrigation.

As a side note to this, a 17 Sep 2010 article in Science (Vol.329, p.1479), states that the entire subcontinent of India has moved 2 meters (~6 feet) north in the last 50 years diving slowly under Tibet. The resulting colossal collision and tectonic forces at work here are almost beyond comprehension and add to the complexities of what is happening in this region. The earthquakes and tremors resulting from this geological process complicate the enhanced runoff and flooding from the melting glaciers.

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