This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

They call it “The Blob”: a vast expanse of ocean stretching from Alaska to California that periodically warms by up to 4C, decimating fish stocks, starving seabirds, creating blooms of toxic algae, preventing salmon returns to rivers, displacing sea lions and forcing whales into shipping lanes to find food.

The Blob first formed in 2013 and spread across an area of the northeast Pacific the size of Canada. It lasted for three years and keeps coming back — most recently last summer. Until now, scientists have been unable to explain this abrupt ocean heating. Climate change, even combined with natural cycles such as El Niño, is not enough.

But new analysis suggests an unexpected cause. Xiaotong Zheng, a meteorologist at the Ocean University of China, has been joined by international colleagues who argue that this extraordinary heating is the result of a dramatic clean up of Chinese air pollution. The decline in smog particles, which shield the planet from the sun’s rays, has accelerated warming and set off a chain of atmospheric events across the Pacific that have, in effect, cooked the ocean.

Other researchers contacted by Yale Environment 360 see the finding, made with the help of in-depth climate modeling, as having potentially critical implications for future climate in the Pacific and elsewhere. Emissions of the tiny particles that cause smog, collectively known as aerosols, are in decline across most of the world — apart from South Asia and Africa. Scientists are concerned that the cleanups will both heat the global atmosphere and lead to more intense regional ocean heat waves.

Yangyang Xu, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University not involved in the study, said it shows that “aerosol reductions will perturb the climate system in ways we have not experienced before. It will give us surprises.”

Indeed, that may already be happening in the Atlantic. Some researchers we spoke to argue that the exceptional heat wave that spread across the North Atlantic from spring last year until April this year, sending fish fleeing for cooler Arctic waters, may have owed its intensity to international efforts to reduce aerosol emissions from ships crossing the ocean.

The idea that cleaning up air pollution can worsen atmospheric warming sounds counter-intuitive. But small particles suspended in the atmosphere, collectively known as aerosols, are very different from greenhouse gases. Instead of warming the planet by trapping solar radiation, they shade it by scattering incoming sunlight and sometimes creating clouds.

They don’t stick around in the air for more than a few days. But climate modelers calculate that while they are there, they fend off as much as a third of greenhouse warming.

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The Blob, a long-lasting marine heatwave off the Pacific coast of North America, shown here in August 2019. Photo by NASA

In recent years, however, this cooling influence has begun to decline in much of the world. Thanks to clean-air legislation intended to protect public health, aerosol emissions have been reduced in Europe and North America since the 1980s. And over the past decade, the same has happened in China, where tough government controls on dirty industries, introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, have cut overall aerosol emissions by 70 per cent, according to Zheng.

Globally, there are now fewer anthropogenic aerosols in the air at any one time than for decades. Susanne Bauer, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says this “turning point of the aerosol era” occurred in the first decade of this century and seems set to continue as more countries seek to banish smog.

As a result, scientists say, the aerosol mask is slipping, causing a boost to global warming in many regions. “We are currently experiencing greenhouse-gas driven global warming enhanced by aerosol removal,” says Ben Booth, a climate modeler at the U.K. Met Office.

The climatic repercussions of this are not unexpected. Predicted declines in aerosol cooling are already factored into projections of future global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But Zheng’s new findings on the cause of the warm Pacific blob suggest that we can also expect more and bigger regional climatic surprises.

Why so? The answer lies in the fact that aerosols do not remain aloft for long enough in the air to mix thoroughly in the atmosphere. So national pollution cleanups will create radically new maps of aerosol distribution.

Some areas will heat much more than others and this differential warming has the potential to destabilize atmospheric circulation patterns, which are largely heat-driven. This is what appears to have been happening in the northeast Pacific, says Zheng.

When he and Hai Wang, also of the Ocean University of China, along with colleagues in the United States and Germany, modeled the likely impacts on circulation systems of the recent cleaning of the air over eastern China, they found that clearing the country’s smog caused exceptional atmospheric heating downwind over the Pacific.

This altered air pressures and intensified the Aleutian Low, a semi-permanent area of low pressure in the Bering Sea. This in turn reduced wind speeds further east, limiting the ability of the winds to cool the ocean below, providing “a favorable condition for extreme ocean warming.”

Zheng and colleagues warn that the findings are a harbinger of future “disproportionately large” warm-blob events.

Smog shrouds the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Photo by Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr (ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)

Aerosols come in many shapes and sizes, from dust and soot to tiny particles invisible to the eye. They have many natural sources, such as forest fires and dust storms. But since the Industrial Revolution the aerosol load in the atmosphere has been dramatically increased by anthropogenic sources, primarily the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

These emissions include large volumes of sulphur dioxide (SO2), a gas that reacts readily with other compounds in the air to create tiny particles that both shade the planet and can cause atmospheric moisture to coalesce into water droplets that form clouds.

Burning fossil fuels produces both planet-warming carbon dioxide and aerosols that mask much of the warming. Atmospheric temperatures depend on the balance between the two. The last IPCC assessment of climate science, published in 2021, calculated that greenhouse gases were producing a warming effect of around 1.5 degrees C, with 0.4 degrees of this masked by aerosols.

“Without the cooling effect of the aerosols, the world would already have reached the 1.5- degree temperature threshold of ‘dangerous’ climate change as set out by the Paris agreement,” says Johannes Quaas, a meteorologist at the University of Leipzig and former IPCC lead author.

But the balance is shifting as ever more countries act to reduce aerosol emissions.

They do so because of a growing awareness of the public health impacts of aerosols, which the World Health Organization calculates cause more than 4 million premature deaths from cancers and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases each year. Air pollution reduced life expectancy in parts of China by up to five years, according to a 2013 study.

Countries are requiring power companies, industries and vehicle manufacturers to filter particulates and either burn low-sulphur fuel or fit equipment to strip SO2 from stack emissions — thus cleaning up aerosol and SO2 emissions without reducing the energy produced by burning the fuel.

Europe and North America have had clean air laws in place for almost half a century. Since 2013 — following a run of debilitating smog in many cities — China has followed, at break-neck speed. Its anthropogenic aerosol emissions have fallen by 70 per cent in a decade, and SO2 emissions have been reduced even more, from 20.4 million tons in 2013 to 2.4 million tons in 2022.

Chinese researchers have tracked the impact of this on the local climate in some detail. Yang Yang, an atmospheric physicist at Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, calculates that by 2017, it had boosted the existing greenhouse warming trend in eastern China by 0.1 degrees C. As the cleanup extends, including to transportation, he expects this extra heating to increase to between 0.2 and 0.5 degrees C by 2030, and to more than 0.5 degrees C by 2060.

Yang predicts it will also trigger changes in local atmospheric circulation that will result in more rainfall over southern China and beyond, in nearby countries such as the Philippines. Zheng’s new research suggests that the effects are already far more long-ranging, stretching across the Pacific to create The Blob on the shores of the U.S.

Where else can we expect disrupting local climate change? Outside of China, researchers are exploring the potential for oceanic climate surprises arising from recent efforts to cut SO2 emissions from shipping.

Dirty, sulphurous diesel has long been the fuel of choice in ships’ boilers. As a result, the world’s shipping fleets until recently emitted more than 10 million tons of SO2 annually, contributing between 10 and 20 per cent of the total anthropogenic climate “forcing” from aerosols, says Michael Diamond, who studies aerosols and climate at Florida State University.

Ships are a major cause of aerosol buildup over oceans, where there are usually few other anthropogenic sources. Satellite images show clear tracks of clouds stretching along major shipping routes.

Burning ships’ fuel also emits carbon dioxide, of course. But until recently, ships’ aerosol emissions have probably cooled the planet more than their greenhouse-gas emissions have warmed it. That is changing, however. Ships seem set to turn from planetary coolers to planetary warmers.

In 2020, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) responded to rising pressure to clear the air around ports by reducing the sulphur content allowed in shipping fuel from 3.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Reduced ships’ SO2 emissions have already resulted in fewer clouds over shipping lanes and higher ocean temperatures.

Diamond says he has a paper currently under peer review whose “takeaway is that something like a third of the North Atlantic marine heat wave [of the past year] might be attributable to the IMO regulations.” Booth, meanwhile, is coauthor of a paper preprinted online this month that argues shipping emissions reductions “may help explain part of the rapid jump in global temperatures over the last 12 months.”

Where are we headed?

If the world works successfully toward lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, while also continuing to curb aerosols, then we can still expect continued warming for which aerosol reductions are a growing cause.

A satellite view of aerosol trails left by ships crossing the North Pacific. Photo by NASA

Yang recently coauthored a paper that forecasts a mid-century world in which the warming impact of the clearer air will “far outweigh those of greenhouse gases.” There will be “increased humid heat waves with longer duration and stronger amplitudes,” he says.

So what can be done? Can the world have clean air while also keeping warming to bearable levels and avoiding worsening ocean heat waves?

Most scientists spoken to for this article agreed that the best route remains doubling down on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But Diamond suggests the aerosol dilemma shines a spotlight on the need to give priority to cutting methane emissions.

This virulent greenhouse gas is second to carbon dioxide in importance as a planetary warmer. Right now, notes Diamond, its warming effect is almost identical to the average cooling effect of continued aerosol emissions. And because methane is a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas, persisting in the atmosphere for only around a decade, its elimination can provide a quick fix for some of the impacts of the lost aerosols. Luckily, there is low-hanging fruit to achieve this. The easiest and cheapest actions include preventing the venting of methane from gas and oil wells and pipelines.

To be clear, nobody suggests that we should stop the clean up of aerosols. The death toll would just be too great.

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