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Monday, May 12, 2008

Climate scientist out to change the world

Solar-cooker project could cut air pollution

Veerabhadran Ramanathan tours the globe to conduct experiments and advise world leaders about climate change.

He helped craft the United Nations' landmark report in 2007 on global warming, and his research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla has been featured in major journals such as Nature.Last year, he led a critique of the U.S. climate science program for the National Research Council. This week at Edwards Air Force Base, he'll launch an unmanned aircraft to study how air pollution from Asia, Canada and Mexico affects Southern California.

But at 63, Ramanathan seeks more than scientific accomplishment. He wants to use his knowledge to help poorer nations improve their quality of life and fight global warming at the same time.

His budding vision is Project Surya – Sanskrit for sun. The idea is to give about 3,500 solar and other “clean energy” cooking devices to families in Mukteshwar, a rural area in the Himalayas, and study if the smokeless cookers effectively slash levels of atmospheric soot.

About half of the world's people cook and heat their homes with fires fueled by dung, wood, crop residues and other high-polluting materials.

If Project Surya were expanded to hundreds of millions of people in various countries, Ramanathan expects that it would buy the world an additional decade or two to control emissions of carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is the major human influence on global warming.

Climate change “is going to impact all of us, but developing and poor nations are going to be more vulnerable,” Ramanathan said. “Everybody has to do something about it.”

Some nonprofit groups share Ramanathan's goals. They've launched fledgling projects to provide smokeless cookers and water heaters in nations such as Sudan, Egypt, China and Vietnam. The devices have been shown to work well for households small and large.

Ramanathan's planning for Project Surya includes how the program would be rolled out, ways to measure changes in air quality, and the scientists, nonprofit groups and others likely to help with the program once it's funded.

He now needs money – $4.5 million – and management experts who can turn his quest into a multinational plan. The money would be used to buy the cookers and scientific tools, gather data and analyze the results.

In recent months, Ramanathan has applied for grants from Qualcomm in San Diego, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the European Commission.

He doesn't have any funds to show for his efforts yet.

“This is my typical experience for all my proposals. They get rejected and then it makes me more determined,” Ramanathan said. “There is no giving up.”

As a child, he watched his grandmother cook over fires fueled by wood and dung in rural southern India.

“I still think about (my grandmother), and I feel for her,” Ramanathan said. “After two hours of cooking, she would be coughing like mad.”

Groundbreaking studies
When Ramanathan was in his early 20s, after training as an engineer, he worked as a night supervisor in a refrigerator manufacturing plant in southern India. He prevented chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, from escaping.

Ramanathan quit to attend graduate school and focused on building an interferometer, which measures minuscule temperature changes. After earning his master's degree, he was accepted into a doctoral program at what is now Stony Brook University in New York.
When his adviser abruptly changed his research emphasis from interferometers to atmospheric issues, Ramanathan switched, too, and it turned out to be a fortuitous move.

Within a few years, Ramanathan's research altered how scientists view a fundamental aspect of climate change. He showed that CFCs were far more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

“It was just an absolutely stunning paper . . . It was really the beginning of our understanding that a whole bunch of other trace gases could affect the climate,” said Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1980, Ramanathan co-wrote one of the first peer-reviewed studies that said the effects of global warming would be evident by 2000. A science team convened by the United Nations in 2001 essentially confirmed that hypothesis.

At Scripps, Ramanathan oversees the Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate. His associate director, Hung Nguyen, said Ramanathan accomplishes so much because he seeks out all sorts of people to handle different aspects of his projects.

“That is an art – the unselfish part of him,” Nguyen said.

This week, Ramanathan will continue his scientific journey with an experiment in the Mojave Desert using an unmanned research aircraft to measure atmospheric conditions such as the type and size of pollution particles and how much sunlight they block.

With the data, scientists will assess how much of Southern California's smog comes from other nations and what effects it has on regional air quality and climate. The research flights are expected to continue every few weeks through January.

Experiment inspires
The idea for Project Surya sprouted at the end of Ramanathan's most expensive experiment to date – a $25 million study of air pollutants over the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

For three months in 1999, Ramanathan and about 200 colleagues collected samples from massive plumes of dust and smoke. From the research plane, Ramanathan was amazed at the size of the brown, contaminant-loaded clouds.

“I said, 'I can't leave over 1.5 billion people to deal with this problem.' . . . I knew neither the government nor the scientists realized the magnitude of the issue,” Ramanathan said.

The haze has been linked to glacial retreat in the Himalayas, shrinking of ice in the Arctic Ocean and smaller rice harvests in India because of decreased rainfall and increases in temperature. The clouds also cause acid rain, a major problem in China.

Ramanathan's desire to go beyond publishing studies in journals and make a tangible difference has grown with time, said Jeff Kiehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

“It's a part of maturing, and it's also a part of realizing that you are entering a stage of life that if you are going to have an impact on other things besides the pure science, now is the time to do it,” said Kiehl, who first worked with Ramanathan in the late 1970s.

By early 2007, Ramanathan and a researcher at a medical college in Chennai, India, had drafted plans for Project Surya.

They predict that conversion to clean-energy cookers would lower the amount of pollutants and reduce the size of brown clouds. Soot is washed out of the atmosphere by rain within a few weeks, so Ramanathan expects to see measurable benefits almost immediately.

Ramanathan isn't the first person to suggest mass deployment of clean-burning cookers, but his plan is different because he would scientifically monitor atmospheric changes with satellites and on-the-ground devices.

“This would be a great breakthrough,” Dev Sikka, an Indian scientist who has studied brown clouds with Ramanathan, said in an e-mail.

Ramanathan has found it harder than he anticipated to obtain financial backing for Project Surya. He blames himself for not knowing how to tap into funds that are available for public health and social service ventures.

In recent weeks, he has attracted new sources of support. They include a local businessman who offered to introduce Ramanathan to philanthropists and a group of MBA students at the University of California San Diego helping to create a business plan for expanding Project Surya beyond the pilot phase.

“In a school environment, we get a lot of exposure to information about the problem . . . and it's a rare opportunity where you feel like you can do something about it,” said Kathy Lin, one of the MBA students.

Ramanathan wants to start sampling air conditions in Mukteshwar by year's end, then distribute the first cookers after he has established a baseline of air pollution there.

He's juggling Project Surya with other commitments. This summer, for instance, he plans to launch unmanned aircraft from an island owned by South Korea to study air quality in Beijing during the Olympics.

“I have started saying that if he wants to work for a long time and keep up with the research then . . . he has to slow down,” said his wife, Giri.

Ramanathan doesn't see that as an option.

“I am absolutely discouraged and saddened to say that the climate system is behaving similar to what we have predicted, but because of that, I am more focused on what needs to be done,” he said.
By Mike Lee


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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