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San Diego researcher finds particulate air pollution may mask the true effect of global warming

Smog lingers over downtown Los Angeles in this undated photo.
Environment California
Smog lingers over downtown Los Angeles in this undated photo.

New research out of San Diego finds scientists may be underestimating the speed and impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change.

Findings in a new research paper suggest current global warming predictions may be making assumptions on rising temperatures that are short of what will happen.

The San Diego based research looked at historical data that considered the interplay between clouds and pollution, and how those two things impacted warming of the planet.

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The study concluded that air pollution, tiny airborne particles known as aerosols, have played a role in how fast the climate warms.

“The ones in particular that we’re interested in are sulfate aerosols,” said Casey Wall, a University of Oslo postdoctoral researcher. “These are small particles on which cloud droplets can form.”

Wall and his co-authors found historical records which showed how air pollution created more cloud cover which masked the impact greenhouse gasses have on the climate.

Accounting for that impact allows scientists to have more accurate historical records, which allows for better predictive models.

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“If we can reduce uncertainty in the aerosol cooling effect it gives us a better understanding of how sensitive the climate is to changes in greenhouse gasses,” Wall said. “Which then helps us to predict long term climate change from greenhouse gas.”

The team concluded that current predictions about warming are a half a degree Celsius lower than they should be.

“We have these conversations about limiting warming to 1.5℃,” said Nick Lutsko, a climate scientist at Scripps Oceanography and a co-author of the paper. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be even harder for us to meet those targets.”

Lutsko’s estimated half a degree increase is dramatic, because the additional warming creates more hostile climate events like storms and droughts.

But Lutsko said more air pollution is not an answer to climate change.

“It’s sometimes surprising for people to think that air pollution is counteracting global warming to some extent. But I really want to emphasize that air pollution is really bad for society and ecosystems and stuff so we should definitely focus on cleaning it up,” Lutsko said.

The findings appear in the current edition of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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