Skip to main content /TECH with /TECH

'Asian Brown Cloud' poses global threat

The lives of millions of people are at risk, both from the toxic haze and the weather change it brings, the study shows  

By CNN's Marianne Bray
and wire reports

HONG KONG, China -- A dense blanket of pollution, dubbed the "Asian Brown Cloud," is hovering over South Asia, with scientists warning it could kill millions of people in the region, and pose a global threat.

In the biggest-ever study of the phenomenon, 200 scientists warned that the cloud, estimated to be two miles (three kilometers) thick, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from respiratory disease.

By slashing the sunlight that reaches the ground by 10 to 15 percent, the choking smog has also altered the region's climate, cooling the ground while heating the atmosphere, scientists said on Monday.

The potent haze lying over the entire Indian subcontinent -- from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan -- has led to some erratic weather, sparking flooding in Bangladesh, Nepal and northeastern India, but drought in Pakistan and northwestern India.

Global balance: Johannesburg Summit 2002 How to preserve the planet and make this a Green Century 

"There are also global implications, not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretches three kilometers high, can travel half way round the globe in a week, " U.N. Environment Program chief Klaus Toepfer told a news conference in London on Sunday.

The U.N.'s preliminary report comes three weeks before the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, which opens on August 26, where all eyes will be on how not to overburden the planet.

Global threat

While haze hovers over other parts of the world, including America and Europe, what surprised scientists was just how far the cloud extended, and how much black carbon was in it, according to A P Mitra from India's National Physical Laboratory.

A cocktail of aerosols, ash, soot and other particles, the haze's reach extends far beyond the study zone of the Indian subcontinent, and towards East and Southeast Asia.

While many scientists once thought that only lighter greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, could travel across the Earth, they now say that aerosol clouds can too.

"Biomass burning" from forest fires, vegetation clearing and fossil fuel was just as much to blame for the shrouding haze as dirty industries from Asia's great cities, the study found.

A large part of the aerosol cloud comes from inefficient cookers, where fuels such as cow dung and kerosene are used to cook food in many parts of Asia, says Mitra.

Acid rain

Using data from ships, planes and satellites to study Asia's haze during the northern winter months of 1995 to 2000, scientists were able to track its journey to pristine parts of the world, such as the Maldives, to see how it affected climate.

They discovered not only that the smog cut sunlight, heating the atmosphere, but also that it created acid rain, a serious threat to crops and trees, as well as contaminating oceans and hurting agriculture.

"It was much larger than we thought," said Mitra. The report suggested the pollution could be cutting India's winter rice harvest by as much as 10 percent.

The report calculated that the cloud -- 80 percent of which was made by people -- could cut rainfall over northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan, western China and western central Asia by up to 40 percent.

While scientists say they still need more scientific data, they suggest the regional and global impact of the haze will intensify over the next 30 years.

Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen -- one of the first scientists to identify the causes of the hole in the ozone layer and also involved in the U.N. report -- said up to two million people in India alone were dying each year from atmospheric pollution.

In the next phase of the project, scientists will collect data from the entire Asian region, over more seasons with more observation sites and refine their techniques.

But because the lifetime of pollutants is short and they can be rained out, scientists are hopeful that if Asians use more efficient ways of burning fuel, such as better stoves, and cleaner sources of energy, time has not run out.




Back to the top