Review Article | Published:

Global and regional climate changes due to black carbon

Nature Geoscience volume 1, pages 221227 (2008) | Download Citation

Abstract

Black carbon in soot is the dominant absorber of visible solar radiation in the atmosphere. Anthropogenic sources of black carbon, although distributed globally, are most concentrated in the tropics where solar irradiance is highest. Black carbon is often transported over long distances, mixing with other aerosols along the way. The aerosol mix can form transcontinental plumes of atmospheric brown clouds, with vertical extents of 3 to 5 km. Because of the combination of high absorption, a regional distribution roughly aligned with solar irradiance, and the capacity to form widespread atmospheric brown clouds in a mixture with other aerosols, emissions of black carbon are the second strongest contribution to current global warming, after carbon dioxide emissions. In the Himalayan region, solar heating from black carbon at high elevations may be just as important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers. The interception of solar radiation by atmospheric brown clouds leads to dimming at the Earth's surface with important implications for the hydrological cycle, and the deposition of black carbon darkens snow and ice surfaces, which can contribute to melting, in particular of Arctic sea ice.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by the NSF, NOAA and NASA. We thank C. Chung, J. H. Seinfeld and G. A. Meehl for providing simulated temperature changes from their published GCM studies. We thank V. Ramaswamy, T. Bond, M. Jacobson, M. Flanner, G. Meehl and C. Wang for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of the paper.

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  1. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, #0221, La Jolla, California 92093-0221, USA

    • V. Ramanathan
  2. College of Engineering, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52240, USA  gcarmich@engineering.uiowa.edu

    • G. Carmichael

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Correspondence to V. Ramanathan.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo156

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