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December, 2007



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Pollution Is Drying Up The Rain
By Karen Nakamura

Is the Atlanta drought the result of jet pollution? Environmentalists might look at the ground and sky above the Atlanta airport, a huge east coast transfer hub, to find the source. Despite Al Gore's movie on the subject and the current interest, one of the most immediate problems of global warming is being given short shift; concentrated CO2 emissions from the growing numbers of airplanes in the air.
Aviation and the environment are on a collision course. The number of airline flights worldwide is growing and expected to skyrocket over the coming decades. By 2050, aircraft emissions threaten to become one of the largest contributors to global warming if it isn't already. British scientists have concluded that jet and car exhaust, factory emissions and power plants are sucking up the rain around the world.

As of 2002, scientists from Canada and Australia recognized that drought can be triggered by tiny particles of sulfur dioxide or aerosols emitted from factories and power plants. The question concerned the devastating drought in Africa's Sahel region-ranging from Ethiopia to Senegal-that killed over 1 million people. One clue to the effect of pollution on rain is that the rain returned to the Sahel after emissions laws in the West reduced aerosol pollution.

"The short-lived pollution particles known as aerosols, didn't have to travel to Africa (Senegel to Ethiopia) to do their dirty work. Instead they were able to alter the physics of cloud formations miles away and reduce rainfall as much as 50%, according to computer simulation." That process is known as teleconnection and continues in the atmosphere today. It might help explain the drought gripping parts of the US.

Scientists have also found that planes idling on the ground contribute to air pollution. But, according to a 1999 United Nations report, the danger is worst in the air where pollution pours directly into the upper atmosphere and has a greater warming effect than on the ground. On a New York-to-Denver flight, a commercial jet generates up to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger. That's about what an SUV generates in a month. Multiply that by the millions of passengers every year.

Every minute of every hour airplanes are creating an atmosphere where no H2O molecules can form. Pollution emissions wrap around water molecules and assimilate them. With fewer and fewer water molecules able to complete their evaporation cycle, drought is spreading across the world, especially where airplane traffic is intense. And it fits that airport hubs like Atlanta are having drought problems.

There are so many flights scheduled airports are having trouble servicing them all. Planes are often stacked up to as many as 30 at a time to depart large airports. Each of those stack ups on the ground or circling in the skies contributes to local pollution. And, every time one of those flights take off they pollute the skies they pass through. A look at an air controller's map of flights per day across the United States shows that the map is literally covered with dots.

The European Union is moving towards strict controls on aircraft emissions while the White House strongly opposes any tightening because of its effect on the airlines' bottom line. The jet industry feels it is already energy efficient.

According to USA TODAY, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't see an immediate threat. "Compared to other sources of emissions, aviation represents a relatively small source" of pollutants. "Cars and trucks generate seven times the amount of emissions that aviation produces." But that's not considering air traffic increases.

A 2003 report by the Government Accounting Office revealed some new jet engines emit 40% more nitrogen oxides than the older engines. However NASA is reported to be developing technology to bring on line by 2018. Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 jets are projected to burn 25% less fuel and reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 80%.

Not only does Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard Branson, an activist against global warming, favor developing less polluting jet fuel, he advocates jet parking bays closer to runways and using tugs to tow them. University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, who helped design airports in Detroit, Bangkok, Brazil and the Philippines, says a new approach to airport design could reduce emissions.

While all this is being discussed maybe someone better check the air over Atlanta before the Southeastern Seaboard dries up completely.

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