From: Alister Doyle, Reuters
Published August 11, 2010 07:09 AM

Russia's fires cause "brown cloud," may hit Arctic

Smoke from forest fires smothering Moscow adds to health problems of "brown clouds" from Asia to the Amazon and Russian soot may stoke global warming by hastening a thaw of Arctic ice, environmental experts say.

"Health effects of such clouds are huge," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chair of a U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) study of "brown clouds" blamed for dimming sunlight in cities such as Beijing or New Delhi and hitting crop growth in Asia.


The clouds -- a haze of pollution from cars or coal-fired power plants, forest fires and wood and other materials burned for cooking and heating -- are near-permanent and blamed for causing chronic respiratory and heart diseases.

"In Asia just the indoor smoke -- because people cook with firewood -- causes over a million deaths a year," Ramanathan, of the University of California, San Diego, told Reuters.

Moscow's top health official said on Monday that about 700 people were dying every day, twice as many as in normal weather, as Russia grapples with its worst heat wave in 130 years.

"The Russian fires are in principle similar to what you see from other brown clouds," said Henning Rodhe of Stockholm University, a vice-chair of the UNEP Atmospheric Brown Cloud study. "The difference is that this only lasts a few weeks."

Asian pollution has been blamed for dusting Himalayan glaciers with black soot that absorbs more heat than reflective snow and ice and so speeds a thaw. Worldwide, however, the polluting haze blocks out sunlight and so slows climate change.

For the climate, "the main concern ... is what impact the Russian smoke would have on the Arctic, in terms of black carbon and other (particles) in the smoke settling on the sea ice," Ramanathan said.

Photo shows a boat traveling along the Moskva River shrouded by heavy smog, caused by peat fires in nearby forests, in Moscow August 9, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Alex Aminev

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