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Atmospheric Sciences

Archives / 2015 / June

What is the biggest air pollution event in the modern era?

What is the biggest air pollution event in the modern era?

It’s hard to think of the scale of the biggest air pollution event in the modern era. Immediately my mind conjures up memories of black and white photographs of the Great London Smog of 1952. Then I start thinking bigger, how about the 1.2 billion vehicles world-wide on the road churning out nitrogen dioxide every single day? Well these are a drop in the ocean compared with bigger industrial polluters. A recent study by the World Health Organisation pegged the financial damage to Europe by anthropogenic air pollution in 2010 at a whopping €2 Trillion. However all of these anthropogenic pollution events pale in comparison compared with mother Earth. A single volcano, Mt. Etna in Sicily has been known to emit the same amount of sulphur in a year as all of French industry.

So, perhaps we just need to find the biggest volcanic eruption in the modern era? This is the 1815 Tambora eruption, the biggest in the last 10,000 years. Actually, no – how explosive a volcanic eruption is and the amount of potentially harmful sulphur dioxide it emits are not always related and even then the dangers these pose to humans depend on weather conditions. In the modern era there is one natural contender: pumping out 15 times more sulphur as the whole European region in 2010, the 1783 volcanic eruption of Laki.

The eruption carried gases into the atmosphere to the start of the tropopause. This is not abnormal, the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull followed the same path. What was different from other eruptions was the amount of gas. The Laki eruption carried an estimated 8 million tons of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and 120 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Here the gases entered the jet stream; a narrow band of intense winds found at about 16 km altitude and this had far-reaching effects.

A high pressure area over Iceland at the time of the eruption caused the poison ridden winds to move south-east and subside over Europe. This resulted in many thousands of deaths because sulphur dioxide gas reacts with moisture in lungs to form sulphurous acid.

High pressure blocking over Iceland (1783)

High pressure blocking over Iceland (top-left) during Laki eruption caused eruption clouds to move over Europe. Image adapted from: Thordarsson and Self (2003).

The ‘Laki haze’ did not dissipate due to hot weather until the autumn and acted like a heat blanket creating convection from increased surface heating resulting in thunderstorms. This directly led to severe flood damage in central Europe. Crop and livestock damage followed. A famine began in Iceland where most of the livestock died from skeletal fluorosis; a condition caused by ingesting fluoride which leads to decreased bone strength, increased risk of fractures and impaired mobility.

This one event weakened the African monsoon circulation leading to less precipitation over the Sahel and resulting in an Egyptian famine due to a shortage of water in the Nile. The Chalisa famine in India occurred also the same year and resulted in 11 million deaths on the subcontinent. However the second of these famines can also be linked to changing El-Niño conditions over the preceding years. The volcanic eruption gases on the atmosphere were as far reaching as North America where there was reported to be ice in the Gulf of Mexico.

A cycle of unusual seasons continued for several years after and caused huge global economic hardship which has been thought to be one of the drivers behind the French Revolution. The large amounts of Sulphur dioxide that remained in the atmosphere may have caused global average temperatures to fall by 1°C for the next couple of years. About 6 million people died as a result of the eruption, either directly or indirectly – this was about 1% of the world’s population at the time.

The Laki 1783 eruption is troubling. In the popular imagination big explosive volcanic events are the most devastating and cone shaped volcanos like Krakatoa are more embedded in our consciousness. However a lesser-known less explosive volcano, if well placed in terms of weather patterns, could potentially be more devastating. If an event like the Laki eruption were to happen again we could expect cold weather and maybe a year without summer. Modern volcanic monitoring practises could help us prepare for such an event but its global nature would still be very disrupting to our lives.

An unlikely choice between a gasoline or diesel car…

An unlikely choice between a gasoline or diesel car…

I have recently been confronted with the choice of buying a “new” car and this has proved to be a very tedious task with all the diversity of car that exists on the market today. However, one of my primary concerns was, of course, to find the least polluting car based on my usage (roughly 15000km/year).

Cars (or I should say motor vehicles) pollution is one of the major sources of air pollution (particulate matter, soot, NOx, …) in urban areas. These often cause, during both winter and summer seasons, long and prolonged exposition to ozone or PMs which can have significant effect on the health of urban population. Besides, vehicles are also one of the most important sources of greenhouse gases emissions (around 30%). Extensive research in various areas (air pollution and monitoring in urban areas, efficiency of motor vehicles, mobility and public transportation, urban planning,…) are thus being conducted to help reduce the exposition to dangerous pollutants and emissions of GHG.

Manufacturers have been more and more constrained by new regulations to decrease the pollutant emissions (with EURO6 norm now in the EU) and the increase the efficiency of motor vehicles. Governments around the world and more particularly in Europe, after the financial crisis of 2007/2008 have introduced new subsidies to incite people to buy new more energy efficient vehicles. One of the main issues here is that often the more efficient vehicles are not necessarily the less polluting vehicles. Policies have been based on GHG emissions from vehicle consumption without consideration of the full life cycle cost and analysis and also on other pollutants emissions.

Thus if we take for example an electric car, the GHG emissions (and also other pollutants) are pretty low or close to zero as there are none released by the car itself. But we also need to evaluate the emissions from the electricity power plant (most likely to be a centralized one based on either fossil fuel or nuclear energy). Furthermore if the life cycle cost of the battery in such cars, are taken into consideration, the picture is not so black and white anymore as it has been pointed out by numerous studies (ADEME – sorry for the French link!). Besides electric vehicle remain quite expensive and not really adapted to all usage.

If we compare both diesel and gasoline cars, then it becomes a bit more tedious. Diesel engines consumes generally less than gasoline one. However their PM emissions, for example, can be quite high and hence they need really efficient filters to get rid of these pollutants. More stringent regulations have forced manufacturers to improve significantly the quality of the air coming out of their diesel engines but still remain on average more polluting than gasoline cars. Countries, like France, that have strongly subsidized the use of diesel in the past, are now finding it quite difficult to phase out these types of cars. And besides they are more efficient and hence emits lets GHG.

Coming back to my choice of cars then… The choice for me in the end was then between the long term or short term benefits. Using a gasoline car or an electric car (in a country where the energy is coming from renewables!) would be more ecologically sound if we drive mostly in urban areas. However if you are thinking about the long term benefits (with climate change) then you should probably opt for a more efficient diesel car.

All of this, points out that research still need to be conducted and new innovative ideas are really needed (like Elon Musk’s battery, maybe?) so as to bridge the enormous gap between having an efficient car, the life cycle analysis and living in a pollution-free urban environment. But of course…, the best solution is to use public transport or bikes… well this is not always possible!