Ships Emit More Soot Than Thought

The humble and charming tugboat emits more soot for the amount of fuel it uses than any other commercial vessel, according to a new study that also finds cargo ships emit more than twice as much as previously thought.

The findings bode ill for the Arctic, in particular, where a rapidly melting ice cap allow for more commercial ship travel. In particular, a long-sought Northwest Passage opened last summer and could become navigable again this year. In fact the very North Pole could be ice-free later this year, scientists said recently.

The researchers worry that the extra soot could exacerbate Arctic melting.

Small dark soot particles absorb sunlight, create haze, and affect  how clouds form and make rain, further altering a region's heat  balance, the researchers say. If commercial shipping  extends new routes through Arctic waters as they become  navigable, soot emissions there could increase. Previous studies have concluded that soot could hasten Arctic melting.

Dirty shipping

Commercial shipping releases roughly 130,000 metric tons of  soot per year, or 1.7 percent of the global total--much of it near  highly populated coastlines, the authors estimate. In the coming  years global shipping is expected to grow two to six percent  annually.

Oceangoing tankers and container ships emit half a gram of soot  per kilogram of fuel burned when at dock and slightly less when  traveling, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and  Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of  Colorado (CU) who conducted the new study. Tugs emit nearly a  gram of soot per kilogram of fuel burned — twice as much as any  other vessel type, the authors find.

"Tugboats are a huge source of black carbon that may be under- reported or not reported at all in emissions inventories compiled by  ports," says the study lead author Daniel Lack of NOAA's Earth System  Research Laboratory (ESRL) and the NOAA-CU Cooperative  Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

The finding will be detailed in the July 11 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American  Geophysical Union. The research was funded by NOAA.

Exceptionally high soot levels from tugboats point to their low- quality fuel — a thick, black tar left over from crude oil after the  gasoline and kerosene have been removed. Engine age and  maintenance also play a role. Tugboats have a disproportionate  impact on air quality because they travel within ports, emitting  potentially harmful particles near populous urban areas, the researchers point out.

About the study

To investigate ship emissions, the researchers observed plumes  from commercial vessels in open ocean waters, channels, and ports  along the southeastern United States and Texas during the summer of  2006. From the NOAA research vessel, Ronald H. Brown, the team  measured black carbon emitted by tankers, cargo and container  ships, large fishing boats, tug boats, and ferries, many of them in  the Houston Ship Channel.

"Commercial shipping emissions have been one of the least studied  areas of all combustion emissions," Lack said. "The two previous  studies of soot emissions examined a total of three ships. We  reviewed plumes from 96 different vessels."

A 2007 study by American and German scientists linked particle  pollution from shipping to tens of thousands of premature deaths  each year, most of them along coastlines in Europe, East Asia, and  South Asia. Soot makes up a quarter of that pollution, Lack said.

The primary sources of soot, or small particles of black carbon, are  fossil fuel combustion, wildfires, and burning vegetation for  agricultural purposes. On a global scale, soot currently traps about  30 percent as much heat as does carbon dioxide, the most  important greenhouse gas, according to the latest assessment of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Live Science Staff
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