North of the chemical equator

If you live in the northern hemisphere, and most people do, you will be breathing a different and poorer quality of air than if you live in the southern hemisphere. Researchers from the University of York have found that roughly coincident with the equator (but not completely) there is another imaginary line – a chemical equator – which divides air with poor quality in the north from air with better quality in the south. This is probably the only north-south divide that favours the south.

In the north we breathe air which has four times more carbon monoxide than air inhaled south of this chemical equator. Traditionally it was believed that the trade winds, which meet over this part of the planet which divides north from south, prevented the poorer northern air missing with the purer air in the south, but new theories are developing to explain the air quality difference. It is important stuff. We do not fully understand how atmospheric pollutants affect the rate of climate change. If we knew more we would be better placed to decide which climate change measures work best.

Around this imaginary chemical equator seas have some of the highest surface temperature in the world. These high temperatures cause many storms, which lift highly polluted air from the surface and hold it in the atmosphere for relatively long periods of time. In the air, pollutants, in the form of aerosols, will inevitably affect climate by preventing light escaping into space and thereby acting as the glass of a greenhouse, and scattering direct light, adding to global dimming that accompanies warming.

The northern hemisphere will always create much more carbon monoxide than the southern hemisphere. The most common cause of carbon monoxide is incomplete combustion. This happens when you fire your gas boiler, or when a power generating station is operating, or when you start your car and run its engine, or when you throw wood or coal on the fire, or when you create a biomass power station or when there is a forest fire.

If you smoke, you will have carbon monoxide in your blood. If you stop smoking the carbon monoxide leaves the blood, which becomes cleaner. The carbon monoxide originates from the cigarette smoke and is drawn into your lungs where it enters the blood stream.

There the carbon monoxide builds up as carboxyhemoglobin. It has a half life of five hours, meaning that it decays to half its strength over that period of time. Minor amounts of carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) – such as a heavy smoker might have, of around 10% have no symptoms. When that figure rises to 15%, the person will experience headache. At 25% nausea and serious headaches occur but you can recover quickly with fresh clean air. At 30% you risk serious long term heath damage; 50% causes death.

Of course, if we inhale too much carbon monoxide we die. Therefore whenever we do things that create carbon monoxide we dump as much of it as we can in the atmosphere, where it disperses. Now we know that even though we flue this gas into the air it concentrates in the northern part of the planet.

There is a lot of burning going on. In fact there is too much burning going on. We have not yet discovered ways to burn harmlessly, only ways to burn relatively harmlessly. However the increasing volume of burning is making all burning potentially harmful, in terms of the particulates and emissions from burning.

In the United Kingdom we are falling short of our European Union targets for landfill waste. It seems that if local authorities do not act every householder in England and Wales will have to pay another £30 a year to cover the tax on landfills under the EU Waste Directive.

One solution offered is that we could incinerate the waste. That would inevitably cause emissions and risk health, almost no matter how the incinerators are designed. Incineration is, though, a very cheap way to dispose of waste, and it would save us all that extra £30 a year.

Incineration of waste is no solution; it will only add to the levels of carbon monoxide and other aerosol pollutants in the atmosphere, however carefully we try to filter the smoke.

The best way to avoid this is to is to recycle much more than we do now, and to avoid creating the waste in the first place. So much waste is generating by packaging, most of which is avoidable. We ought to put a stop to that, especially if we see that the atmospheric carbon monoxide levels are high and rising north of the chemical equator.

4 Responses

  1. Hi – I am in complete agreement with you and fully support your thoughts on incineration NOT being the solution.

    As a writer on sustainable living issues and an author on rubbish, I’m working as hard as I can to get people to see rubbish as a resource, get them recycling with greater tenacity and if at all posible, to encourage them to give a positive embrace to living with less, therefore creating less rubbish in the first place!

    All tough calls though, but we can only do what we can do to inspire people – the rest is in their hands, just like the rubbish…

    Great blog by the way!

    Tracey Smith
    ‘The Book of Rubbish Ideas’

  2. Man…
    Your “article” North of the Chemical Equator is awesome. Global dimming has been one of my favourite topics since I first read about it like a year ago on the NASA earth observatory website. I watched the BBC, Global DImming video for the third time last night. I was searching around the web after the show, and saw your blog. In Universiy, I majored in physical geography, and have since been working with various scientists in the fields of ecology, and ocasionally glaciology, so Global warming has long been something that I am familiar with. The idea..I mean, the FACT of global dimming puts such an amazing twist on the realities of Global warming. The GLobal dimming movie blows my mind everytime I watch it. The temperature range analysis performed in the United States during the grounding of ~All USA air traffc after sept. 11, 2001, was a very compelling piece of the pie. THanks for writing about the phenomenon of global dimming, and, brown clouds..

  3. Andy

    Thanks for that. The complexity of these issues (geneuine scientific complexity) is mind boggling.


    We have too many possessions. It is the difference between what we need and what we want and being humans we generally want much more than we need.

    keep up your “rubbish” writing – I’m a fan.


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