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Scope of Science: The Dark Side of Soot

Soot is melting the Arctic. Even scientists are alarmed with the disappearance rate of ice in the northern hemisphere. When soot falls on snow and ice it increases the amount of light and heat that is absorbed, just like any reflective surface. The Arctic is not alone in this unprecedented melting; the life-supporting snowpack in the Himalayas is also feeling the impact.

Soot is now thought to have twice the heat-warming potential than estimated by the by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.

Sources of soot are cooking stoves, diesel engines and coal fired power plants. In fact, burning any fossil fuel has the potential to produce black carbon. The No. 1 goal to slow climate change is to reduce CO2 levels; however, reducing black carbon is a close second. The good news is that reducing soot may be easier than reducing carbon dioxide levels. Since soot is a particle, it can precipitate out of the atmosphere within weeks. If soot-causing pollution is reduced, a positive impact would occur, and quickly. And since people won’t be banned from driving, it is more appealing to promote clean and efficient technology standards that would reduce soot particles. By reducing emissions from diesel trucks in North America, it could cut back on soot substantially.

Even if the risks of climate change were left out of the equation, soot still kills 2.4 million people a year. Scientific research shows that soot particles can penetrate deep into lungs, deeming soot as one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. Lung disease is one of the biggest health problems associated with black carbon, so reducing it would have two-fold benefits.

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