If you think you’ve seen pollution -- just wait. One day, we could suffocate in a killer smog never before witnessed on Earth. There are some pretty nasty clues that the clean-up system of the atmosphere is on the verge of collapsing. And when that happens, better go build yourself a glass dome to live under!

It is eco-disaster at its very worst -- a cruel apocalypse that could kill billions of people, and change the face of the Earth forever. One day, everything seems quite fine. But then, all hell breaks loose.

Suddenly, the pollution from our factories and cars just won't go away anymore. It is as if the cleaning firm of the planet has decided to quit. Polluting chemicals don’t rain down anymore, and seem to refuse to dissolve in the oceans. They just hang around, forming dense, thick mists of dirt. Of course, we’re having our share of smog already. But it doesn’t compare to the Mother of all Smogs that is being unleashed now.

The consequences are dramatic. Within years, huge parts of the atmosphere become a foul reeking, toxic brew of exhaust gases, soot and factory filth. Asthma and lung diseases become the world’s biggest killers, smog one of its worst problems. Big cities like Tokyo, Athens and New York are permanently covered in dense death fogs. Wearing a mouth cap or a gas mask outdoors becomes common as wearing shoes. But still, people die by the millions.

And it goes beyond that. The wind pushes the toxic clouds around from one place to another, bringing death and destruction to the countryside. Animals become sickly, crops turn brown and whither. Forests die on a vast scale, and huge forest fires consume the remains. The weather forecasts will highlight what pollution goes where, instead of silly nonsense like whether we will have rain or sunshine tomorrow.

In the meantime, hundreds of millions of eco-refugees will try to escape, causing uproars, wars and famines. In the rich countries, people will build huge domes over their cities, with purified air in it. But in the poorer countries, the smog disaster strikes all the harder.

The hydroxyl apocalypse

What you're witnessing is a phenomenon known among scientists as the ‘hydroxyl collapse’, or, more technically, the breakdown of the 'oxidizing capacity' of the atmosphere. Don’t worry if that doesn’t ring a bell -- it’s a rather obscure thing. Scientists worry about the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and stuff like CFCs and CFKs -- not hydroxyl.

That’s partly because hydroxyl is a benign little substance. You could call it the detergent of the atmosphere. The stuff (formula: OH-) attacks smoke from our factories, cars and chimneys, and makes it soluble in water. After hydroxyl’s touch, pollution can rain down and vanish in the soil, or dissolve in the ocean.

But no hydroxyl, and we’re in trouble. Evil noxious gases like sulphuric and nitrogen oxides would pile up. No hydroxyl, and smoke and soot would accumulate in the atmosphere.

And ‘no hydroxyl’ could be where we’re heading. In the 1980s, NASA scientists came up with figures that suggested the amount of hydroxyl in the air has dropped by 25 percent since 1950. And in 2001, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a 20 percent drop of hydroxyl activity in the century to come.

So... What is this hydroxyl stuff, anyway?

Hydroxyl (OH-) is a fleeting, highly reactive substance that pops in and out of existence everywhere around us. Roughly, a hydroxyl 'radical' is around only for a second at most, because it reacts so readily with other compounds. Hydroxyl shows up when you bombard water vapor with ultraviolet radiation.

There’s only a tiny fraction of hydroxyl in the air. Scoop up a chunk of air as big as the Mount Everest, and you will find hardly enough hydroxyl to fill a bucket!

Still, it’s effective stuff. It ‘oxidizes’ gases like carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphuric dioxide (SO2) and methane (CH4). This means that the gases get prepared so that they chemically bind to water -- and that they can rain down and end up in the soil or in the ocean.

Then, in 1993, Sasha Madronich, a researcher working for the US government, made a frightening discovery. At some point, Madronich calculated, pollution will overwhelm the hydroxyl chemistry. There will be so much filth around, the detergent will simply give up -- and quit. In fact, over some polluted areas, the hydroxyl shutdown is happening already, Madronich points out.

Okay, so we’d just cut down the pollution, right? Unfortunately, that won’t help. The calculations show that once the hydroxyl collapse has kicked in, there is no turning back. A chain reaction will set in, emptying the atmosphere of hydroxyl. Shutting down a few factories won’t bring the clean-up system back on.

There’s a weird twist, too. Hydroxyl is formed under the influence of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun -- the sort of radiation that causes skin cancer. So it may be actually a bad thing that the hole in the ozone layer is currently closing up again. The ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet radiation. But it also puts a break on hydroxyl formation.

Now that’s some funny paradox. We might end up sitting under a glass bell -- thanks to the fact that the ozone layer is in tip-top condition again!

Aw, these climate issues... Why are they always so terribly complicated?





The oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere

Pollution scenario


All texts Copyright © Exit Mundi / AW Bruna 2000-2007.
You're not allowed to copy, edit, publish, print or make public any material from this website without written permission by Exit Mundi.