The Asian Brown Cloud: Global Climate Chaos and Tropical Glaciers

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The United Nations have released a report on the phenomenon dubbed as the Asian Brown Cloud, which is a thick soup of human waste engulfing Asia, and which has been widely reported:

“A dirty brown haze sometimes more than a mile thick is darkening skies not only over vast areas of Asia, but also in the Middle East, southern Africa and the Amazon Basin, changing weather patterns around the world and threatening health and food supplies, the U.N. reported Thursday.

The huge smog-like plumes, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and firewood, are known as “atmospheric brown clouds.”

When mixed with emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for warming the earth’s atmosphere like a greenhouse, they are the newest threat to the global environment, according to a report commissioned by the U.N. Environment Program.”

In the report itself it reads:

“One of the most serious problems highlighted in the report is the documented retreat of the Hind Kush-Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers, which provide the head-waters for most Asian rivers, and thus have serious implications for the water and food security of Asia”

This taken together with the alarming development all over the world, but particularly with regards to tropical glaciers in South America, mainly Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, it is looking more and more like game over soon. There really isn’t much time left. The Asian Brown cloud, first reported on in 2002 has now grown to a full scale threat of immanent disaster. Water is running out, the Himalayan glaciers whose decay are accelerated by the Asian Brown Cloud feed around 2 billion people with water to drink and to grow crops. Now go figure…

In the summer of 2008, colonos did research for and delivered a series of workshops about climate change for indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Peruvian Andes. Our findings were shocking, here in the words quoted from a World Bank report, not exactly the frame of reference we would normally choose, but the institution’s corporate bias puts things in an illuminating perspective:

“About 99 percent of the Chacaltaya glacier in Bolivia has disappeared since 1940, says World Bank engineer Walter Vergara, in his new report, “The Impacts of Climate Change in Latin America. One of the highest glaciers in South America, Chacaltaya is one of the first glaciers to melt due to climate change. Although the glacier is over 18,000 years old, it is expected to vanish this year. “The greenhouse gases are the main driver,” says Vergara. “The scientific community has a consensus – this is man made.”

Within the next 5-8 years, on a conservative estimate, more than 30 million people in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador will be without water, in particular in the big cities, La Paz, Lima and Quito and the problems have already begun:

“The effect of diminishing glaciers is most evident in El Alto, an indigenous community of 800,000 people perched above the capital of La Paz. Waves of mostly Aymara immigrants – the satellite city is growing at between 5 percent and 10 percent a year – arrive daily, fleeing the poverty of their native highlands. With the disappearance of glacial water supplies and a decrepit and poorly managed water company, the city could soon suffer a severe water shortage, experts say” (Murphy 2008)

Living as we do in a world of accelerated urbanisation where already the majority of the world’s population live in cities the pressure for the circulation of water is increased dramatically and the problems thus intensified:

“Ecuador’s Quito draws 50% of its water supply from the glacial basin, and Bolivia’s La Paz, 30%. The volume of the lost glacier surface of Peru is equivalent to 7,000 million cubic meters of water, that is about ten years of water supply for Lima.”

To get an idea of the scale of the problem already today it may be useful, for some, to think in terms of the lost production capacity in hydroelectricity plants, due to less water running down from the soon to be extinct glaciers (same source as above):

“The impact of Andean glacier retreat on the local economy is formidable. For example in Peru, the annual incremental cost to the power sector is estimated at US$1.5 billion”.

It will also be instructive to take a global view. The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) writes:

“Some of the most dramatic shrinking has taken place in Europe with Norway’s Breidalblikkbrea glacier thinning by close to 3.1 metres (2.9 metre water equivalent) during 2006 compared with a thinning of 0.3 metres (0.28 metres water equivalent) in the year 2005.

Other dramatic shrinking has been registered at Austria’s Grosser Goldbergkees glacier, 1.2 metres in 2006 versus 0.3 in 2005; France’s Ossoue glacier, nearly 3 metres versus around 2.7 metres in 2005; Italy’s Malavalle glacier 1.4 metres versus around 0.9 metres in 2005; Spain’s Maladeta glacier, nearly 2 metres versus 1.6 metres in 2005; Sweden’s Storglaciaeren glacier, 1.8 metres versus close to 0.080 metres in 2005 and Switzerland’s Findelen glacier, 1.3 metres versus 0.22 metres in 2005.”

Deglaciation is an effect of climate change. A major cause of climate change is deforestation, a problem that the indigenous people of the Amazon know very well. The relation between deglaciation and deforestation is of course very complex, but in its simplicity is also shows what prominent climate change researcher, James Hansen at NASA, identifies as positive feedback loops in the climatic systems.

(This is very simplified and quickly written) – When the output of a process becomes an input into the same process you have a positive feedback loop, which means that a system can run amok, since it keeps accelerating, in the crudest of terms. That is what is happening on various fronts in terms of climate change. The melting ice caps means that less sun is reflected and therefore more heart trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, but the melting of the ice was caused by increased heat being trapped in the first place by the release of green house gasses.

Moreover, the increase in dark surface (or oceans) means that even more heat is trapped. More and more. The thawing of permafrost releases greenhouse gases trapped underneath its protective frozen, or, rather, melting shield, causing even more permafrost to give way for more gases.

The Asian Brown Cloud both attracts more heat as well we cause cooling in some places, but the mixture of the two leads to further climate chaos and irregularities on a sub-continent where they used to say that you could set your clock after the monsoon. Hot and cold and irregular weather and an acceleration of deglaciation in the Himalayas and dramatically increased “food security issues” beyond the glacially dependent regions, those are the “facts”, even if some cooling occurs:

“Globally however brown clouds may be countering or ‘masking’ the warming impacts of climate change by between 20 and up to 80 per cent the researchers suggest.

This is because of particles such as sulfates and some organics which reflect sunlight and cool the surface.

The cloud is also having impacts on air quality and agriculture in Asia increasing risks to human health and food production for three billion people.”

It is all connected.

Deforestation is predominantly directly human made, but the last few years in the Amazon, with less rain and less water running down from the glaciers have accelerated deforestation because non-human made forest fires are occurring on large scale in the Amazon, producing clouds not entirely unlike the Asian Black Cloud. The output of climate change has become inputs and when processes accelerate in this manner we reach what Hansen calls tipping points:

“The Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. These include not only the loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to rising seas.

Ocean levels will increase slowly at first, as losses at the fringes of Greenland and Antarctica due to accelerating ice streams are nearly balanced by increased snowfall and ice sheet thickening in the ice sheet interiors.

But as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by meltwater, and as buttressing ice shelves disappear because of a warming ocean, the balance will tip toward the rapid disintegration of ice sheets.

The Earth’s history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees, the new sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising the sea level by twenty-five meters, or eighty feet. Within a century, coastal dwellers will be faced with irregular flooding associated with storms. They will have to continually rebuild above a transient water level.” (James Hansen 2006)

Hansen leaves no doubt about where to find those responsible for human made climate change on a global and threatening scale. In 1988 Hansen spoke before the U.S Congress and said that we can be 99% sure that climate change is human made and in 2008 he returned to speak before congress, now certain not only of what causes climate change, but also about who to hold responsible, namely CEOs of corporations that are “fully aware of the disinformation about climate change they are spreading” (and causing). That would in other words be the leading capitalists in the oil and energy sectors of the market.

These climate change stories can be seen as evidence that the capitalist market place and mode of production are unsustainable: they use more resources than the world can regenerate with disasters already occurring.

Conclusion: industrial capitalism is bad for you! Act NOW!

For else, where do the children play?


8 thoughts on “The Asian Brown Cloud: Global Climate Chaos and Tropical Glaciers

    colono responded:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 12:28 (561)

    Do you think, by any chance, excuse me for suggesting this, that if this cloud was been hanging over Africa it would have been labelled by the higher, whiter echelons as a black cloud?

    The Asian Brown Cloud: Global Climate Chaos and Tropical Glaciers said:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 13:28 (602)

    […] Colonos | […]

    colono responded:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 14:08 (631)

    A good friend said, picking up on the racist-anti-racist gist of the cloud colour scheme:

    “..and if it had been hanging over Europe… Do you think that it would have been more important?”..

    colono responded:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 14:25 (642)

    Just had en email from Jim Hansen’s service;

    To be removed from Jim Hansen’s email distribution list, respond with REMOVE as subject.

    The following one-pager is on my web site at

    Target paper
    The final version of “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal is available at
    You can click on the main paper and supporting material individually. The two are combined in one pdf on the GISS web site at

    BTW, I think that the Supporting Material contains some interesting stuff.

    NASA decided not to make a press release for the paper, but Yale did one
    The draft press release that I wrote and “Q&A” about the paper are at

    It is difficult to generate the attention that the topic deserves because the basic conclusions were already presented in my talk at the December 2007 AGU meeting. Also the first draft of the paper (available in arXiv, as is the final version) appeared on several blogs and was discussed in several newspapers, which discourages media attention to the final improved version.

    The long delay between first draft and final paper was my fault. The principal demand of the journal referees, addition of a “caveats and uncertainties” section (section 4.5 in the main paper and section 18 in the Supplementary Material), could have been completed in a week or two, but it took me ~two months because of other obligations. I caused another delay by not checking typesetting in the proofs carefully enough, requiring an extra iteration of proofs. Bottom line: I think that the “Open” publication method, which includes full peer review but results in a paper freely available throughout the world, is promising and I intend to pursue it further.

    Even countries among those that we think of as the most educated and progressive in environmental matters, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, are condoning actions that, if consummated, make it almost impossible to avoid climate tipping points with disastrous consequences. Letters to Swiss authorities, in English, French and German, are at

    Thanks to Jacques Mirenowicz and Susana Jourdan in Switzerland and Reto Ruedy and Denis Gueyffier at GISS for help with translation into French and German.

    The simple fact of the matter is that the only hope for keeping a planet that resembles the one of the Holocene, the past 10,000 years, is to halt any new CO2 emissions from coal and to phase-out existing coal emissions promptly. I suppose it is possible that some people honestly do not understand that no goal for future CO2 emissions allowing construction of new coal plants will solve the problem and that “capture-ready” is a subterfuge. Fortunately, young people are beginning to catch on to what is happening, and I do not think they will allow the shenanigans to continue much longer. More on that later.


    colono responded:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 14:33 (648)
    tommoriarty said:
    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 15:33 (689)

    Speaking of climate change, here is a fun climate change / energy quiz. Give it a try.

    Best Regards,

    colono responded:
    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 10:35 (482)

    ClimateSanity – link above – is a climate change denial website – like those who are psychically incapable of computing the fact of the holocaust, and deny it for self-interested reasons, – so is there a growing movement of capitalist rhetoric denying climate change’s connection to industrial capitalism.

    […] Even the Word Bank estimates that there will be 40 million people without water in the Andes within 4-6 years and the problems have begun. Al Alto in Bolivia (sister city of La Paz) is suffereing from severe shortages and the same goes for Lima in Peru that only has water for 75% of the inhabitants and many more are coming, as the glaciers disappear and people seek to the cities. […]

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