By Katie Lubinsky
I am not a winter person. In fact, I would prefer 80-degree weather all the time. However, as much as I complain and begrudgingly deal with cold weather, I understand its importance for ecosystems and the climate (and that I also cannot escape it unless I travel between hemispheres).
Many are asking whether we’ll lose some of our winter in the coming years. Despite cold periods, researchers report that ‘warmer than usual’ days are outnumbering ‘colder than usual’ ones. One pollutant that is contributing to rising temperatures is black carbon, an air pollutant that may not be as well known to the public as carbon dioxide.
Often referred to as soot, black carbon is made up of tiny, black-colored particles that are part of particulate matter (PM). The particles are emitted from fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass, and are the strongest light-absorbing component of PM. Black carbon particles can absorb a million times more energy than carbon dioxide while up in the atmosphere.
These particles have an enormous affect on climate change. By directly absorbing light and heat from the sun and earth, black carbon can warm the atmosphere, and, in turn, directly raise temperatures. What’s more, the pollutant can also reduce the ability for snow and ice to reflect light, primarily at the Poles and Himalayas (the albedo effect); thus, causing the snow and ice to warm and essentially melt faster.
EPA researchers and grantees are studying the amount of black carbon being emitted from primary sources such as diesel engines as well as ways to reduce the impact of the pollutant on climate change. A recent EPA-funded report by the Health Effects Institute shows that the Agency’s emissions standards for new diesel engines reduce emissions, including black carbon.
Cookstoves, another high-emitting source of black carbon, are used in many developing countries for cooking food and heating. This results in harmful health effects from poor indoor air quality, particularly for women and children who spend significant time in smoky homes. EPA is testing new and improved cookstoves that reduce emissions and use less polluting fuels and alternative energy, like solar power.
Progress to reduce black carbon has been made. One study indicates that there has been a 32 percent reduction in black carbon emissions from U.S. mobile sources between 1990 and 2005, according to the Report to Congress on Black Carbon (download at: http://www.epa.gov/blackcarbon/).
EPA’s black carbon research is making important contributions to international efforts to reduce this air pollutant. Researchers are optimistic that by reducing black carbon, significant progress can be made in battling climate change.
This is good news for those who love winter, snow and outdoor winter sports like snowboarding and skiing. Though I will continue to brace myself before venturing outside in the cold months, I also appreciate the changing seasons and the research that is being conducted to reduce black carbon’s threat to our climate.
About the Author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development in communications and wishes everyday was like summer.