There’s a good side to air pollution?

SunStar Peña
SunStar Peña

From tail pipes to factory chimneys, human activities pollute the air, endangering the health of people. Even inside the comfort of our homes, it’s not safe. Indoor air pollution from cooking and candles is found to be unsafe too. Outdoor and indoor air pollution causes respiratory and other diseases, as proven by numerous studies.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is one of the greatest environmental risks to health. The combined effects of ambient air pollution and household air pollution are associated with 6.7 million premature deaths annually.

The WHO said that by reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. That’s the reason why we have environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. But cleaning the air has an unexpected consequence which baffled scientists.

For many years, scientists have been unable to explain the abrupt heating of a vast expanse of ocean stretching from Alaska to California. This area periodically warms up to 4 degrees Celsius. Climate change, even combined with natural cycles such as El Niño, is not enough to cause this occurrence.

Now experts have come up with a surprising explanation – it is a result of the cleaning of the air. A meteorologist at the Ocean University of China, Xiaotong Zheng, and international colleagues said that the extraordinary heating in the Pacific is the result of a dramatic cleanup of Chinese air pollution. Why is this so?

Tiny pollutants like dust and soot which are suspended in the air block the Sun’s rays like an umbrella and cool the Earth. That’s similar to what the explosion of Mount Pinatubo did in 1991. The fine ash and gases expelled by the volcano cooled the Earth by 0.5°C over the ensuing year. However, due to the efforts of governments to reduce air pollution, there’s a decline of these air pollutants.

Scientists are concerned that cleaning the air will both heat the global atmosphere and lead to more intense regional ocean heat waves. Without the cooling effect of these tine air pollutants, collectively known as aerosols, the world would already have reached the temperature threshold of dangerous climate change.

Should we then deliberately pollute the air to stop global warming? There’s a method called stratospheric aerosol injection which would introduce aerosols into the stratosphere to create a cooling effect. There was even a proposal in 2021 to spray millions of tons of chalk into the stratosphere.

How about a real umbrella to block sunlight? Crazy as it may seem, Israeli researchers believe that an umbrella-like shade the size of Argentina launched nine million miles from the Earth could block the sun's rays and mitigate the effects of global warming.

Dirtying the air is not an option. The health effects would be tremendous. A giant umbrella in space is way too expensive. To stop global warming, focus on the root cause. Reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

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