Pollution-Climate Connections

Guest commentary by Loretta Mickley, Harvard University

Every summer over much of the United States, we brace ourselves for heat waves. During these periods, the air turns muggy and usually smoggy. After a few days, a cold front moves in, sweeping away the pollution and ending the heat. Given that we are on a path towards global warming, atmospheric chemists are asking how climate change could affect air quality. Will warmer temperatures mean more pollution during these episodes? Will episodes last longer? Most importantly, what effect will changes in air quality have on human health?

Recently the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) released Heat Advisory, a report warning that surface air quality could suffer greatly as a result of climate change. In response, a group called the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), together with another group called United for Jobs, published Air Quality False Alarm, a detailed criticism of the NRDC forecast. PRI argues, among other things, that anthropogenic emissions in the U.S. will drop sharply in coming decades. In their view, air pollution will become a thing of the past, no matter what happens to climate.

What’s the story here? First, a little background on ozone and particulate matter (PM), two major components of smog. Surface ozone is formed from a mix of natural and anthropogenic precursors like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic carbon. We have measurements of surface ozone dating back to the late 1800s which imply that ozone in some regions has increased 2-5 times due to emissions of ozone precursors from cars, industry, and power plants. As for PM, there are many different kinds – e.g., organic carbon, soot, and sulfate-ammonium-nitrate. Some kinds of PM, like soot, are directly emitted into the air, but other kinds condense from gas-phase molecules. Like ozone, PM has both natural and anthropogenic ingredients.

Many factors govern the severity and timing of pollution episodes. An obvious factor is the magnitude of precursor emissions. But there are meteorological factors, like how stagnant the surface air is and whether it’s clear or cloudy, warm or cool. The summer of 1998, for example, saw a record number of ozone exceedances averaged over New England. That summer was also the warmest on record for that region. The hot summer that Europe endured in 2003 was also a summer of high pollution levels for that continent. But the cool summer in the U.S. that same year meant that the we saw low levels of pollution.

So how will pollution evolve over the coming decades as climate changes? The easy answer is: oh, the warmer temperatures mean greater pollution! But it’s more complicated than that. Then there are other meteorological factors to consider. As the surface temperatures rise, will the depth of the boundary layer increase, diluting the pollutants within it? Maybe stronger surface winds will carry all the pollution away. What about changes in cloud cover or rainfall?

To tackle issues of this complexity, modelers often turn to sensitivity studies. A sensitivity study is one in which you change just one or two variables, and keep everything else constant. By taking the problem apart in this way, you can isolate the effect of one or two factors at a time.

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