Saturday, January 30, 2016

Melting Ice and Black Carbon

Photo by Lobzang Dadul

The greatest noticeable effects of global climate change in the Ladakh Himalaya these days are the shrinking of the glaciers and the increasing volatility of the weather.  This volatility we experienced this year in Tar village as below-average snowfall in winter and freak rains during the summer.  These rains would by no means have been unusual in Maine or many other places, but here the houses’ walls and roofs are made of earth, and when it rains they fall apart.  Also, flooding is a serious issue in this high desert landscape that has washed away houses, trees, water-powered grain mills, and even people in recent years.  The Tarpas (“people of Tar”) tell us they never had tarps for their roofs (which must be dumped by hand) until a decade or two ago, and they never needed them.  During a summer like this one, that is hard to imagine.  Without them (sometimes even with them), the earth roof leaks through onto everything and everyone in the rooms inside.

The clear general trend of glaciers throughout the Himalaya is that they are shrinking in area and losing mass in the Karakoram, in Ladakh, in Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.  That means they will produce less melt water in the future, if they aren’t already.  The many rivers with important dry-season sources in the Himalaya help support between 1.3 and 2.5 billion people.  For farmers in Ladakh, an additional challenge beyond having less water is that the melt water comes earlier, often too early for the planting, and slacks off while the crops still need weekly watering.  Here, no one counts on rain.  “The air temperature increase varies in different parts of the vast Himalayan region, but in almost every area the rate of warming is dramatically higher than the worldwide average.  Over the northwest Indian Himalaya, for example, temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees C over the past century.” (Jonathon Mingle, Fire and Ice

I’ve just finished reading a book called Fire and Ice by Jonathon Mingle, a fellow from Vermont who has travelled through this region quite a bit as a teacher and writer and aid worker.  The book chronicles changes in a Ladakhi village in Zanskar.  It is mostly about climate change and in particular about something called “black carbon”.

Black carbon is what it sounds like – unburned organic carbon that escapes an inefficient fire as minute floating particles and becomes part of soot and smog.  There are other airborne products of inefficient fires such as brown carbon and other aerosols, but black carbon causes the most warming of them all, mostly because it turns so much of the sun’s light into heat.  It is widely agreed by scientists to be the second most important global climate forcer after carbon dioxide, and it is a much different and faster-acting agent of warming for three reasons.  One, it absorbs sunlight and warms the air directly around it immediately, as does the great cloud of smog that hangs over the Gangetic Plain of northern India, especially in winter with the increased use of biomass heating and cooking fires.  Two, it blows onto glaciers and ice sheets (locally and at greater distances) and reduces the ice’s reflectivity – the ice sheet becomes visibly dirty and melts much faster than it would have otherwise.  Much of Greenland’s ice sheet is suffering from this today.  So are the Arctic and the Himalayas.  And three, even if airborne black carbon isn’t immediately deposited near to its source, it only lasts about one or two weeks in the atmosphere.
The four major sources of black carbon are diesel engines, coal, open burning of biomass (agricultural waste, forest fires), and cooking/heating fires in simple stoves fuelled by wood, dung, waste, and coal.

About three billion people are still cooking and heating using inefficient stoves that smoke up their houses and their lungs, causing more than four million premature deaths in 2010, from pneumonia, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  This is a really major health issue that gets little attention in our world, which is wealthy enough to do something about it.  These stoves also constitute a major source of black carbon.  

So Mingle recommends diesel particulate filters on vehicles, improved efficiency coal-fired brick kilns, funnelling agricultural waste into efficient energy production, and replacing half a billion smoky stoves with efficient, clean-burning ones.  He makes a compelling case for the benefits of targeting and reducing these sources of black carbon right now (while acting also to reduce greenhouse gases), thus reaping immediate benefits.  He paints the picture that targeting black carbon in a major way right now could buy us time over the next couple of decades to get our carbon emissions in order.  Scientists have likened reduction of black carbon emissions as an “emergency brake” for humanity because we produce lots every day right now, to stop doing so is fully within our technological capacity, and black carbon’s warming is significant and occurs mostly within a very short window of time (whereas carbon dioxide warms the earth for hundreds to thousands of years).


At SECMOL we have an hour of English Conversation Class every evening, and once this month we decided to discuss climate change.  Water is at the center of the challenges from climate change that Ladakhis face these days.  The students in one group asked me, piecing it together in English: “Why must we face these problems when they have been caused by people in other far away countries?”  That’s a tough one to answer.  I asked in response: “Do you think people in my country, who became wealthy by burning these fuels, have a responsibility to help people in your country, who did not burn the fuels but still face these problems?”  I expected: “Yes!”  Instead, a bright, mischievous, creative sixteen-year-old man spoke these words: “They can help if they want.  We are satisfied…When we build a new yuracanal, we can put the stone there, and it’s okay.”

I had opened the class by telling the students and volunteers a bit about black carbon, but first I posed a basic question – “What causes climate change?” We received an unexpected, prescient answer that stopped me in my tracks.  Do Americans tend to lack this clarity of thought?  One young man raised his hand and earnestly responded: “Human desire.”