'Asian Brown Cloud' Poses Global Threat
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'ASIAN BROWN CLOUD' POSES GLOBAL THREAT
By Marianne Bray
Monday, August 12, 2002
HONG KONG, China -- A dense blanket of pollution, dubbed the "Asian Brown
Cloud," is hovering over South Asia, with scientists warning it could kill
millions of people in the region, and pose a global threat.
In the biggest-ever study of the phenomenon, 200 scientists warned that the
cloud, estimated to be two miles (three kilometers) thick, is responsible
for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from respiratory disease.
By slashing the sunlight that reaches the ground by 10 to 15 percent, the
choking smog has also altered the region's climate, cooling the ground while
heating the atmosphere, scientists said on Monday.
The potent haze lying over the entire Indian subcontinent -- from Sri Lanka
to Afghanistan -- has led to some erratic weather, sparking flooding in
Bangladesh, Nepal and northeastern India, but drought in Pakistan and
"There are also global implications, not least because a pollution parcel
like this, which stretches three kilometers high, can travel half way round
the globe in a week, " U.N. Environment Program chief Klaus Toepfer told a
news conference in London on Sunday.
The U.N.'s preliminary report comes three weeks before the Earth Summit in
Johannesburg, which opens on August 26, where all eyes will be on how not to
overburden the planet.
While haze hovers over other parts of the world, such as above America and
Europe, what surprised scientists was just how far the cloud extended, and
how much black carbon was in it, according to A P Mitra from India's
National Physical Laboratory.
Asia's brown haze is altering the weather, creating acid rain
A cocktail of aerosols, ash, soot and other particles, the haze's reach
extends far beyond the study zone of the Indian subcontinent, and towards
East and Southeast Asia.
While many scientists once thought that only lighter greenhouse gases, such
as carbon dioxide, could travel across the Earth, they now say that aerosol
clouds can too.
"Biomass burning" from forest fires, vegetation clearing and fossil fuel was
just as much to blame for the shrouding haze as dirty industries from Asia's
great cities, the study found.
A large part of the aerosol cloud comes from inefficient cookers, where
fuels such as cowdung and kerosene are used to cook food in many parts of
Asia, says Mitra.
Using data from ships, planes and satellites to study Asia's haze during the
northern winter months of 1995 to 2000, scientists were able to track its
journey to pristine parts of the world, such as the Maldives, to see how it
They discovered not only that the smog cut sunlight, heating the atmosphere,
but also that it created acid rain, a serious threat to crops and trees, as
well as contaminating oceans and hurting agriculture.
"It was much larger than we thought," said Mitra. The report suggested the
pollution could be cutting India's winter rice harvest by as much as 10
The report calculated that the cloud -- 80 percent of which was man-made --
could cut rainfall over northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, western China and
western central Asia by up to 40 percent.
While scientists say it is just early days and they need more scientific
data, they do say the regional and global impact of the haze will intensify
over the next 30 years, with an estimated five billion people living in
Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen -- one of the first scientists to identify the
causes of the hole in the ozone layer and also involved in the U.N. report
-- said up to two million people in India alone were dying each year from
In the next phase of the project, scientists will collect data from the
entire Asian region, over more seasons with more observation sites and
refine their techniques.
But because the lifetime of pollutants are short and they can be rained out,
scientists are hopeful that if Asians use more efficient ways of burning
fuel, such as better stoves, and cleaner sources of energy, time has not run
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