Black Carbon

Recently, a study was conducted by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) at the Chirbasa station, near the Gangotri Glacier. It has drawn attention towards high black carbon content in the region and the consequent melting of the glacier.

The concentration of black carbon was found to be about 400 times higher in the summer months. These observations are shocking as the himalayan glaciers are far away from the pollution-zones. 

What is black carbon?

Black carbon is a pollutant which is primarily produced when fossil fuels, biomass, biofuels like cow-dung don’t burn completely. It is also produced during forest fires and stubble burning. It appears like soot and is a component of particulate matter.

Black carbon is capable of absorbing heat and energy just like carbon dioxide. But, it has much higher absorbing power than CO2. Also, it has a short life time as compared to carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, black carbon stays for a few days or weeks until it settles through rain or snow. 

Black carbon is a significant pollutant after CO2, it is responsible for degrading air quality. It can also affect the radiation balance of the earth due to abnormal heating or cooling effects. Therefore, it has a direct impact on the climate of earth. Black carbon is also injurious to health as the fine particles contain carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Also, problems related to blood pressure and respiration are concerned.

In the study conducted by WIHG, it was found that when black carbon settles on the surface of the snow, it absorbs excessive heat and causes the snow to melt. It happens because the surface albedo of the snow is reduced. The radiation which got reflected earlier, due to the presence of black carbon gets absorbed instead. The energy absorbing capacity of the fine particles of black carbon are milion times larger than that of carbon dioxide. Therefore, the black carbon aerosols are a significant cause of global warming too.

Asia, Latin America, Africa contribute significantly in black carbon emissions. 

India, is the second largest emitter of black carbon ( emission will likely increase in future). Most of the emission in India comes from the Indo-gangetic plains region. Black carbon reaches in such regions via forest fires in lower slopes or by winds and other climatic conditions during that time causing long range transportation of pollutants to higher reaches.

It is a serious issue because the effects of pollution in the country are directly affecting the ecology of the ecologically sensitive Himalayas. Melting of glaciers causes rise in sea-level and in this case, river-level which may cause floods. 

Some ways of controlling emissions and reducing them are-

  • Using electric vehicles over fossil fuel based vehicles. 
  • Using clean fuel such as CNG, clean diesel, petrol which have ultra-low sulphur content and low hydrocarbon content.
  • Preventing forest fires 
  • Finding alternatives for stubble burning.
  • Regulating jhumming, i.e. slash and burn agriculture, etc.

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