Brown Clouds

As human population increases across the world, so too does the problems associated with that growth. The most fascinating and involving change of our times is the issue of global warming; a problem clearly seen through the evidence of melting ice around the world from the poles of the planet to the mountains scattered across the globe. Though most well known by the reduction of ice around the poles, recent studies in the 21st century are finding that mountain glaciers are receding just as quickly, and the culprit is something known as a Brown Cloud.

What are Brown Clouds? Brown Clouds are the byproducts of burning organic materials like fossil fuels, biofuels, and plant life, which releases aerosols into the air that collect in large, thick masses of pollutants that stay low in the atmosphere. These clouds of pollutants get their brown color from the dark soot that collects there. These clouds are most well known over India and lower China, spanning great distances and sometimes reaching thicknesses over two kilometers.

Curiously enough, though very apparent in size and presence Brown Clouds were overlooked as potential causes of Global Warming for many years because they consisted of the aerosol particles known for their reflective properties and ultimately their contribution to surface cooling. However, while it’s true that lighter colored aerosols reflect light from the sun back into the atmosphere, it is not true of the darker particles that actually trap the light energy. After trapping this energy, the dark particles would release the energy back into the air as heat, thus creating a warming effect within the cloud itself. Since these clouds hang low in the atmosphere they have little to no effect on ground temperatures, but a very large impact on higher elevations, particularly where glaciers are located.

In contrast to the poles, mountain glaciers are vital to the fresh water supply of many rivers and the lives of millions depend on the slow seasonal melt of the glaciers to supply them with a constant flow. With the presence of the Brown Clouds, however, heat is trapped around the mountain beyond the season and higher during it, resulting in flooding from too high of a melt, and droughts from the absence of the glaciers as their ice pack goes without winter replenishing. And so long as the burning of organics continues, not only will the clouds get larger, but the rising heat and the many effects of it will only continue to grow.

As of now, like global warming, there isn’t a solution to the threat of Brown Clouds. Though with human effort in energy management it is possible to stop the growth of the clouds by stopping excessive burning, it is not cost effective to do so. For now, until an answer can be found; Brown Clouds and the melting of mountain glaciers are here to stay.