AIR pollution as a Band-Aid against global warming?
That's the theory of atmospheric scientist James C.G. Walker, a professor at the University of Michigan, who points to smog as a reason why global warming trends are not as consistent as researchers would expect.
"Bad air does have its benefits," he says in an interview in the Michigan Today alumni publication. "But by masking the effects of other environmental problems, it may be lulling us into an unmerited complacency. Environmental damage may already be worse than we think."
Meteorological records over the past 150 years demonstrate a steady buildup in the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is produced mainly from burning fossil fuels and, in the atmosphere, acts to trap heat on the Earth's surface like a greenhouse.
The problem has been that world temperatures have not consistently risen, with periods of relatively sharp increase followed by constant or cooler average temperatures.
Professor Walker suggests that air pollution is responsible for this erratic relationship, shielding the planet from some of the Sun's warming rays.
"Perhaps the pollutants spewing into the atmosphere from factory smokestacks and automobile tailpipes are deflecting some incoming solar radiation and keeping the Earth cooler than it otherwise would be."
It's not just the smoggy haze that masks the atmosphere. Higher concentrations of dust and soot can increase cloud cover, forming cloud condensation nuclei for airborne water droplets, another barrier that reflects the Sun's heat back into space.
Dr. Walker points to the apparent correlation between periods of observed global warming and the periods of economic recession.
"During periods of rapid economic growth, when factories and power plants are expanding production, the quantity of pollutants in the air increases rapidly and produces a short-term cooling effect," he notes.
"When the economy slows down, the pollutant level drops off rapidly, leaving us exposed to the full impact of global warming again."
While this pattern of global warming and global economy has not been scientifically proven, Dr. Walker predicts the current expanding economic recovery will again moderate temperature readings around the world. And that may lead to further false complacency, he warns.
"We are in a race between environmental destruction and human attitudes on how to deal with it," he says. "It's not clear which side will win."
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