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Earth's nine life-support systems: Aerosol loading

24 February 2010

By Fred Pearce

Unnaturally heating and cooling the planet

(Image: Mauri Rautkari/Rex Features)

Boundary: Not yet identified

Diagnosis: Unknown

Human activity churns up the earth, creating dust, while burning coal, dung, forests and crop waste fills the atmosphere with soot, sulphates and other particles. We have more than doubled the global concentration of these aerosols since pre-industrial times. That haze influences the climate and is a threat to human health, so “aerosol loading” should be considered a potential planetary boundary.

The impacts are highly variable, though. Some aerosols, like sulphates, reflect solar radiation, causing cooling. Others, like soot, absorb and re-radiate it, causing warming. The global balance of these heating and cooling effects is unclear.

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Aerosols also affect the climate in other ways. For example, the near-permanent brown haze across southern and eastern Asia is a subject of intense research as it appears to influence both the timing and the positioning of the monsoon.

Meanwhile, aerosols reduce crop yields by falling on fields, and also clog up human lungs, contributing to millions of deaths from lung and heart disease.

The damage from aerosols can be great, but their highly variable impacts left Rockström’s team unable to put a number on safe limits.

Read more: From ocean to ozone: Earth’s nine life-support systems

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