Tag Archives | snow

Black carbon: When climate change and air pollution collide

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of black carbon, but surely you’re familiar with soot, yes? Well, that’s essentially black carbon. So what does soot / black carbon have to do with climate change? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Where does it come from?

Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal), biofuels (e.g., ethanol), and biomass (e.g., wood—anything from fireplaces to forest fires). In developed countries, the majority of black carbon emissions come from burning diesel fuel (think: cars and other forms of transportation). In developing countries, however, most black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating (picture women crouched over charcoal cookstoves, because in addition to being an environmental issue, this one’s also a gender and health issue).

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

The incomplete combustion of coal, mosaic style

How does it work?

Black carbon contributes to global warming both directly and indirectly. Directly in that its little particles, being black, absorb sunlight in the atmosphere and turn that into heat. And indirectly because when deposited on snow and ice, black carbon reduces their reflectivity, so more heat gets absorbed (rather than reflected back into space), making the snow and ice melt faster. The resulting water, being darker in colour, absorbs even more heat, and on and on it goes (remember, we covered this back when we talked about sea ice decline). This makes black carbon a really important driver of climate change in the Arctic.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Black carbon at work in the Arctic, making things go wonky

Timing is everything

Along with a handful of other substances, black carbon is part of a group of super pollutants that, molecule for molecule, punch above their weight in terms of contributing to climate change. These super pollutants are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The “short-lived” part is important: unlike greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, SLCPs have a much shorter atmospheric lifespan (more in the order of days to weeks). This timescale aspect is key. When we reduce emissions of normal GHGs, there’s quite a lag before we see anything happening in terms of falling atmospheric GHG concentrations; what we’ve already put up there stays around for a looooooong time (essentially forever), so there’s no immediate gratification for the fruits of our mitigation labours. But reducing black carbon and other SLCPs has a much more immediate impact because of their short lifecycle. While it remains imperative that we address GHGs writ large, action on SLCPs can buy us a little bit of time and might help avoid those nightmarish scenarios of unchecked climate change.

But you know what’s also great about dealing with black carbon? It’s a local pollutant (soot’s not super great for your lungs, among other things), so in addition to seeing very tangible, short-term global effects in terms of climate change, you also see immediate local public health benefits in terms of things like asthma and other respiratory conditions (and, as mentioned above, in developing countries there’s also a gender angle). That’s a lot of bang for our mitigation buck!

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Black carbon (Potent but actionable)” (2015), 12″ x 12″ — marble, coal, unglazed porcelain, smalti, sea spines

A no-brainer, but not a silver bullet

Now, on my more cynical days, I am sometimes inclined to think that developed countries find dealing with SLCPs an attractive option because it acts as a bit of a smokescreen (*groan*…sorry, I couldn’t resist) in that a lot of the work can be done outside their borders. They pull together some money for cleaner-burning stoves in developing countries, thereby appearing to be benevolent AND serious about dealing with climate change, but they essentially allow themselves to delay taking ambitious action at home, which would inevitably involve taking a long, hard look at fundamental changes to their fossil fuel-based economies. But like I said, that’s on my cynical days, which, admittedly, are too frequent. At the end of the day, action on black carbon and other SLCPs is a no-brainer, both at home and abroad. We should be doing it—it buys us some time and comes with considerable co-benefits—just as long as it’s not the only thing we do.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling -- detail

Just a parting detail shot…

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The atmosphere is a giant sponge: A mosaic about precipitation trends

Water. A basic necessity for life. But, as with most other things, climate change is going to mess with water too.

In general, wet areas are going to get wetter and dry areas drier (with exceptions to the rule, of course). Here’s how it works in a nutshell: A warmer atmosphere increases evaporation and is able to hold more water. So as warmer temperatures suck the moisture up into the atmosphere, which holds onto larger quantities of it for longer stretches of time, the land dries out more quickly, thereby increasing the risk and potential severity of drought. When the precipitation does eventually fall, it is with less frequency but higher intensity, resulting in, you guessed it, increased risk of flooding. In addition, warmer temperatures also mean that more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Less snow means a smaller snowpack, which reduces our summer water resources—normally the snow melts gradually and recharges water sources for important things like, say, agriculture. Well, not so much in the future. So, a warmer world is both wetter and drier, more drought stricken and more flood prone.

“Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.” (IPCC AR5, 2013, “The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policy Makers“)

This mosaic is all about that growing divide between water-logged and arid regions and the fact that, when the rains do come, they won’t quench our thirst, as the deluge will simply run off our parched, sun-baked soils and endless expanses of concrete without a chance to seep in, get taken up by trees and plants, and recharge our aquifers. It’s that idea of suddenly and overwhelmingly having what you need but being unable to use it that’s behind the title of this piece: “Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken).”

"Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)" mosaic by Julie Sperling about climate change and precipitation

“Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)” (2015), 19″ x 14″ — Marble, ceramic tile, mudstone, smalti, glass tile, brick, terracotta, sandstone, slate, thinset tesserae, and garden hose faucet handles

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

The proto-idea for the mosaic had been sitting idly in the back of my brain ever since I found the two garden hose faucet handles in an abandoned lot near my office on one of my lunchtime scavenging outings over a year ago. Yep, sometimes it takes that long (and often longer) for that seed of an idea to take root and sprout.

The idea was to have the fiery side and the watery side emerging from / spinning into the faucet handles in opposite directions. You know, turning the taps on and off. And they do rotate in different directions. But depending on whether you see them as coming out of the faucets or getting sucked into them like a drain, the drought doesn’t necessarily match up with the faucet closing and the flood with it opening (righty tighty and lefty loosey, respectively). This bugged me for a while, being the perfectionist that I am, but then I made my peace with it, embraced the ambiguity, and am now simply content that they move in different directions relative to the faucets. It is enough.

Flood

Flood

Drought

Drought

About halfway through this mosaic, it suddenly hit me: I was applying some of the things I had played with / learned during the IMA challenges. Until now, the impact of these challenges on my work had been fuzzy and intangible at best. But now here I was, weaving the lines in more than one colour and material (just like I practiced in Week 2) and also making use of negative space between the lines in the tangle (sort of like in Week 13). Now, I probably could have done this piece without the IMA challenge experience under my belt, but I like to think that in some way having gone through those challenges shaped the decisions I was making, even subconsciously, and my work was better for it.

Learning how to weave the lines over and under

Learning how to weave the lines over and under — a chronological progression

I must be a glutton for punishment, because making the lines meander and crisscross like this is certainly a challenge. Building so many lines in parallel and keeping track of each one’s direction relative to the rest of the jumble and how they’re going to go over and under each other is such a headache. And yet I love doing it. I have absolutely no plan when I set out on one of these undertakings. In many ways they are the most unpredictable of the work that I do. The lines take me on a journey and, while I may protest occasionally (“No, contrary to what you may think, dear line, I believe you really do want to veer left over here”), I generally just do their bidding. Maybe that’s why I love doing it so much: the element of surprise and the unknown keeps me engaged and on the edge of my seat.

Flood detail

Flood detail

Drought detail

Drought detail

The divide between wet and dry

The divide between wet and dry

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On warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers

"Thaw" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Thaw” (2013) – scavenged safety glass, stone, smalti, cinca

I have recently discovered that I work better after warming up. I’ve always known that it takes me a while to get into the groove with other things, especially with sports, and even with writing; however, I had never even considered that this might also be true of mosaics. Well, after deciding that I would try to always have two projects on the go – a small one (to tinker around and have fun with) and a larger one – I’ve discovered that I work best when I lay down a few lines on my small piece before diving into the big one. Who knew?!

These smaller mosaics are also great for just playing around and experimenting with different materials or styles. It’s OK if I don’t like the outcome, because I haven’t invested too much time and/or too many materials in them. They’re also great ‘palate cleansers’ between bigger projects, perfect for helping me shift gears (as was the case with “Harvest”). There’s also the added bonus of having something – albeit a small something – to show for my work more often, which works well with my results-oriented personality.

I’m calling my most recent warm-up / playtime mosaic “Thaw”. I had been wanting to experiment with the safety glass that my mom scavenged from a bus shelter for me (best Christmas present ever!) since, well, Christmas, so that’s where the palette started. I also had a tiny bit of clear-ish smalti left over from the Mississippi project, so I grabbed that, and some really white stone tile I got from the ReStore (no idea if it’s natural or man-made, but I’m leaning toward the latter). And then I decided to toss in some cinca, just for kicks. The white stone was super crumbly and cut terribly – I was thankful that I tried it out on a small piece before committing myself to using it in a big piece. I may actually never use it again.

Anyway, I’m really digging this new way of working. So three cheers for warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers!

Close up of "Thaw" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

Zoom in on “Thaw”

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