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Clarkson professor helps identify major climate-change contributor

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POTSDAM — A Clarkson University professor contributed to research revealing the second-leading cause of man-made global warming.

Philip K. Hopke, director of the Clarkson Center for the Environment and of the Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science, is co-author of a study that identifies black carbon, or soot, as the second-greatest man-made contributor to climate change.

“It is an opportunity as well as a potential problem,” Mr. Hopke said. “Here we have black carbon; it is a major player in health effects. Now we have the opportunity to work with developing countries to reduce the black carbon emissions.”

The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, said the direct influence of black carbon on warming the climate could be twice previous estimates.

Mr. Hopke said soot is a byproduct of burning wood, coal and diesel fuel, particularly in the developing world.

“Any combustion produces black carbon; it is a matter of the amount,” he said. “If you think of a nice Bunsen burner flame, it is still making very tiny black carbon particles. Obviously, black carbon is coming out of the tailpipe of diesel buses and cars, and from fireplaces and furnaces.”

Black carbon is a contributing factor in fine-particulate air pollution, causing nearly 2 million deaths annually, according to World Health Organization estimates.

The study used data that Mr. Hopke helped compile from collaborators in China and Southeast Asia.

“We had a lot of black carbon data that came from a series of collaborators throughout that region, as well as work that I’ve helped those people do,” Mr. Hopke said. “I also helped identify sources of black carbon.”

While power-generating plants and vehicles in the United States and western Europe adhere to standards that keep black carbon emissions low, the developing world remains a source of pollution.

“We’ve been studying high-efficiency, low-emission biomass units here at Clarkson. Those are systems designed to burn quite cleanly,” Mr. Hopke said. “We have two manufacturers in New York that are making high-quality pellet and chip boilers. We’re moving ahead. We need to get a lot more of that technology out into the developing world and move away from slash-and-burn agriculture.”

Black carbon adds to climate change by absorbing heat and by reducing the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight.

While the discovery informs the debate over man-made climate change, Mr. Hopke highlighted one of the finding’s positives: “If we could have a really major campaign and significantly knock down the black carbon, it is a one-time buy,” he said.

“It is not going to stay in the atmosphere for more than a couple of weeks at maximum; it is a continuous source of black carbon that keeps it in the atmosphere. It buys us time to work on the other things that have a longer lifetime in the atmosphere.”

Carbon dioxide remains the greatest contributor to global warming.

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