• Warmer temperatures mean more pollution from sources you might not suspect.
  • A rise of 7.2 degrees in global temperatures could increase this pollution by 14%.
  • Researchers hope their study will spur more efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions now.

Breathing is going to be more difficult in the future and the source of the problem might surprise you.

We're already aware of how human sources of pollution can cause or worsen all sorts of health problems, including asthma, autoimmune diseases and lung cancer. And the combined effects of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution and household air pollution are associated with more than 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Now researchers warn that rising global temperatures could lead to an increase in pollution from natural sources.

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“We are not looking at human emissions of air pollution, because we can change what we emit. We can switch to electric cars. But that may not change air pollution from plants or dust,” said James Gomez, lead author of a new study published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

If global temperatures rise by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), harmful plant emissions and dust will increase by as much as 14%, according to the UC Riverside research.

The Role Of Plants In Pollution

Gomez, a UC Riverside doctoral student, explains that all plants produce chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds, or BVOCs.

“The smell of a just-mowed lawn, or the sweetness of a ripe strawberry, those are BVOCs. Plants are constantly emitting them,” he said in a news release about the study.

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Benign on their own, BVOCs produce organic aerosols when they react with oxygen. Once inhaled, the aerosols can lead to infant mortality and childhood asthma, as well as heart disease and lung cancer in adults, according to the release.

Plants increase BVOC production for two reasons: increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and increases in temperatures.

Granted, plants are good for the environment because they reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“It’s the large-scale increase in carbon dioxide that contributes to the biosphere increasing BVOCs, and then organic aerosols,” Gomez said.

Increased Dust Will Also Be A Problem

Dust from the Sahara Desert will most likely be the second-largest contributor to future air pollution.

“In our models, an increase in winds is projected to loft more dust into the atmosphere,” said Robert Allen, associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UCR and co-author of the study.

With a warming climate, higher dust levels are expected in Africa, the eastern U.S. and the Caribbean. Intense monsoons will increase dust levels over Northern Africa.

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Dust and organic aerosols are known as PM2.5 pollutants because they have a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. In the study, the increase in naturally sourced PM2.5 pollution increased in direct proportion to carbon dioxide levels.

“The more we increase CO2, the more PM2.5 we see being put into the atmosphere, and the inverse is also true. The more we reduce, the better the air quality gets,” Gomez said.

The hope, he said, is that the research will spur more actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

M​ore On Pollution

Air Pollution May Be Worse Than Thought – Here’s Why

People Of Color Disproportionately Exposed To Multiple Sources Of Hazardous Air Pollution, New Research Says

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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