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Black Carbon
Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2010

Environmental group petitions EPA to reduce soot, saying it speeds melting of sea ice
By Dan Joling, The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An environmental group petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to reduce soot, saying it accelerates melting of glaciers and sea ice.

The Center for Biological Diversity called for regulations to be implemented under the Clean Water Act.

"Black carbon, or soot, is not only dangerous to breathe but also a potent global warming pollutant that is greatly accelerating the melt of Arctic sea ice and glaciers around the world," attorney Matt Vespa said.

Soot darkens the atmosphere, absorbs heat and raises air temperatures. On snow and ice, it absorbs heat and increases melting, the center said.

It also can contribute to warming by reducing the reflectivity of snow and ice — replacing a white surface, which bounces solar energy away from the Earth, with a dark one.

EPA spokesman Tony Brown in Seattle said he had not seen the petition and the agency had no immediate comment.

Vespa said the petition was the first to explicitly seek protection of water in its solid form.

Soot hangs in the atmosphere only about a month and is not distributed globally, unlike greenhouse gases, which last decades. As a result, reducing soot would have a quicker payoff for the climate, Vespa said.

The petition lists four main sources of soot — diesel engines, homes that burn wood or coal, forest burning and industrial processes, usually small boilers. Coal-burning industrial complexes such as power plants are not specifically targeted.

In the Arctic, the group attributes as much as 90 percent of soot to fuel consumption.

In Alaska, that could put a target on the backs of people who rely on diesel fuel or wood to heat their homes, and rural villages that use diesel to power generators for electricity. Vespa, however, said larger sources of black carbon that his group is concerned with originate in the Arctic from ships, diesel engines associated with petroleum exploration activities, and older polluting trucks, which could be controlled through cleaner engines and fuels and particulate traps.

Emissions in the Arctic merit targeting because they have a disproportionate impact on Arctic warming and sea ice, Vespa said.

Loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list polar bears as a threatened species in May 2008. Summer sea ice in September reached the third lowest level since satellite measurement began in 1979. The three lowest levels have occurred in the past five years.

In the western U.S. much of the soot deposited on glaciers is the result of vehicle and ship emissions, according to the petition.

The center noted the number of glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park dropped from 150 to 26 since 1850.

The center asked the EPA to set national water quality criteria for sea ice and glaciers at preindustrial levels.

It also requested the agency publish information on soot to guide states in identifying sources of emissions and strategies for reduction.

Copyright 2010

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton