More Smoke than Fire: Some Informal Climate Math

One of the environmental left’s favorite pictures to paint is of North America as a pristine ecological paradise prior to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Often, the most hysterical headlines about climate change employ alarming phrases such as “For the first time in human history!” and “Never before seen levels!” and “All-time highs!”

I’ve always been a little skeptical. Weathermen often announce the breaking of temperature records set in 1885 and 1917. How could that be? If weather variations are all explainable by carbon levels in the atmosphere, what exactly could have caused the odd 87-degree, late-November day in New York City during the administration of Grover Cleveland?

Anyway, there’s a story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about a plan being considered to ban the use of fire pits on beaches in Southern California. Roasting marshmallows with sand between your toesies is evidently a treasured local tradition. Sounds nice to me.

Naturally, a killjoy commission has been established to examine the environmental effects of the area’s 857 beach-fire pits. It’s called the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Last week, the air-quality board released preliminary findings of a study on the fires, which found that in one evening a pit emits as much fine-particulate pollution as “one heavy-duty diesel truck driving 564 miles.”

I’m not that good at math, but Google is. If every one of those fire pits was working at full capacity every night of the year (857 X 564 X 365) that would be the equivalent of about 176.5 million diesel truck miles worth of fine-particulate pollution annually. So, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District report, the fire pits of Southern California are capable of belching into the air every year roughly the same amount of pollution that you’d expect from a heavy-duty diesel truck making 36,526 round trips between Huntington Beach, California and Jacksonville, Florida.

Okay, so the fires aren’t blazing every night. But the story got me thinking about a time when they were—and on a scale bigger than in Los Angeles or Orange Counties.

The Native American population north of the Rio Grande at the time of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas was—at a minimum—10 million. Who knows how many tribes, families, and discreet social units were to be found in a population of 10 million? But for the sake of argument, let’s make a very conservative guess that this 10 million was broken up into 1 million families of 10 people each.

Can we agree that semi-nomadic, pre-modern peoples—especially hunter-gatherers—built fires for cooking and such? Can we agree further that they probably did so every night? So, let’s estimate that 1 million families north of the Rio Grande built an open-pit, wood fire every night during the pre-Colombian era.

Using the South Coast Air Quality Management District report figures, that’s 564 million miles worth of diesel-truck pollution in the United States and Canada every night in a time when not a single car, truck, airplane, or factory was anywhere to be found. It’s almost 206 billion miles worth of diesel-truck pollution in the atmosphere annually—the equivalent of about 43 million round trips between California and Florida.

Of course, once the Europeans got here, the number of fires built every evening in North America expanded alongside the rapidly multiplying population. Cough cough.

There are three possible conclusions as I see it. Either:

  1. The South Coast Air Quality Management District report is really over-estimating the amount of smoke these fires throw off;

  2. The North American atmosphere in the pre-Colombian era was a lot more polluted than has been previously appreciated; or
  3. The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

What do you think?

  1. drlorentz

    I think you haven’t done your homework. The LA basin was indeed plagued by smog from campfires in the preindustrial era. More important, you have not shown that diesel engines emit large quantities of fine particulates to make your case that the AQMD’s comparison is absurd. You are probably right in your main point, but you’d (rightly) be demolished in an argument with a Green. My twin suggestions: 1. Get your facts before opining. 2. Get better at math before calculating and making conclusions. All those big numbers mean nothing without context and understanding.

  2. drlorentz

    One more thing: fine particulate pollution has little to do with climate change. If anything, particulates cause cooling, not warming. The health concerns about particulates are far more direct and immediate. The concerns may be exaggerated, bit that’s off topic for thus thread.

  3. Spoon

    The AQMD states the amount of emission as equal to the heavy duty diesel truck traveling 564 miles but does not give a value. It is terrible? How bad is that? They get to babble and palaver without any accountability.

  4. Jean Abbas

    After the coldest spring on record in Mississippi since the 1920s, why is global warming even an issue?

  5. Matthew Hennessey
    C
    drlorentz:  You are probably right in your main point

    Thank you.

  6. FloppyDisk90

     More important, you have not shown that diesel engines emit large quantities of fine particulates to make your case that the AQMD’s comparison is absurd.

    In fairness to the OP, it’s the AQMD itself that’s making the comparison.

  7. CandE
    Matthew Hennessey:

    There are three possible conclusions as I see it. Either:

    1. The South Coast Air Quality Management District report is really over-estimating the amount of smoke these fires throw off;

    2. The North American atmosphere in the pre-Colombian era was a lot more polluted than has been previously appreciated; or
    3. The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

    What do you think? · · 1 hour ago

    Yes.

    -E

  8. Not JMR

    Yes, I believe there are historical accounts of the Indians describing it as a very smoggy area.

  9. drlorentz
    FloppyDisk90

     More important, you have not shown that diesel engines emit large quantities of fine particulates to make your case that the AQMD’s comparison is absurd.

    In fairness to the OP, it’s the AQMD itself that’s making the comparison. · 2 hours ago

    AQMD is making the comparison but Mr Hennessey is the one trying to make the case that the comparison is wrong. He hasn’t. His post reminds me of the wisdom of P.J. O’Rourke:

    The college idealists who fill the ranks of the environmental movement seem willing to do absolutely anything to save the biosphere, except take science courses and learn something about it.

    That sword cuts both ways.

  10. FloppyDisk90

    @11:

    So you’re saying he should have fact checked the AQMD’s fine particulate number prior to multiplying?  I think the point was if the AQMD’s number is accurate then it leads to some questionable results:  X fires today means Y pollution today but X1 pre-industrial fires would have meant Y1 level of pollution then, where Y1>>>Y.

    I completely agree that there’s a lot of ignorance on this subject (and I include myself in that population) but it was the AQMD’s number.  It’s their number to defend.  Hennessey was simply pointing out some apparent oddities in what it implied.  

  11. drlorentz
    FloppyDisk90: @11:

    So you’re saying he should have fact checked the AQMD’s fine particulate number prior to multiplying?  I think the point was if the AQMD’s number is accurate then it leads to some questionable results:  X fires today means Y pollution today but X1 pre-industrial fires would have meant Y1 level of pollution then, where Y1>>>Y.

    You misunderstood my point. Imagine that diesel engines produce relatively small amounts of fine particulates. Next, imagine that open fires produce lots. Then it would be altogether possible that AQMD’s figures are correct, even as their comparison is misleading. It’s likely that open fires do indeed emit far greater quantities particulates that diesels since their combustion is very inefficient. It’s quite reasonable to conjecture that a small number of open fires would be a more significant source than a large number of trucks. The facts would tell.

    What Mr Hennessey failed to check is that the data creates a contradiction; he merely claimed it. He also conflated global warming with particulates. Yet he’s quite self-satisfied that I think his larger point may be right. Facts are required to support conclusions.

  12. FloppyDisk90

    @13,

     Then it would be altogether possible that AQMD’s figures are correct, even as their comparison is misleading.

    Either the comparison is accurate, yet misleading, because diesel trucks are relatively clean in terms of fine particulate emission or the AQMD’s equivalency is inaccurate.  You can come to this conclusion simply by performing some simple arithmetic.  That’s what Hennessey did.

  13. Pony Convertible

    There is a problem with your analysis.  You are only considering the smoke from the wood burning.  You also need to add the smoke from the joint that is being passed around today’s beach fire.  That is what makes it all make sense.

  14. drlorentz
    FloppyDisk90:

    Either the comparison is accurate, yet misleading, because diesel trucks are relatively clean in terms of fine particulate emission or the AQMD’s equivalency is inaccurate.  You can come to this conclusion simply by performing some simple arithmetic.  That’s what Hennessey did.

    Not at all. Please read his conclusions again:

    1. The South Coast Air Quality Management District report is really over-estimating the amount of smoke these fires throw off;

    2. The North American atmosphere in the pre-Colombian era was a lot more polluted than has been previously appreciated; or
    3. The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

    There is no evidence presented that the AQMD is overestimating the smoke from fires. There is data to suggest that the LA basin in the pre-columbian era was quite polluted (see #1 and #10). Finally, this has nothing to do with global warming hysteria (see #2).

    The factual and logical lacunae are big enough to drive a (diesel) truck through.

  15. Richard Finlay
    The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

    Almost certainly not.  It will continue to get more feverish.

  16. FloppyDisk90
    drlorentz

    FloppyDisk90:

    ….

    Not at all. Please read his conclusions again:

    1. The South Coast Air Quality Management District report is really over-estimating the amount of smoke these fires throw off;

    2. The North American atmosphere in the pre-Colombian era was a lot more polluted than has been previously appreciated; or
    3. The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

    There is no evidence presented that the AQMD is overestimating the smoke from fires. There isdata to suggest that the LA basin in the pre-columbian era was quite polluted (see #1 and #10). Finally, this has nothing to do with global warming hysteria (see #2).

    The factual and logical lacunae are big enough to drive a (diesel) truck through. · 15 hours ago

    1.  Like I said, either the AQMD got its number wrong (and I agree, there’s no evidence that they did) or the comparison is misleading because diesel trucks don’t emit a large amount of fine particulates.

    2.  OK, I think you’re agreeing with Hennessey here?

    3.  Fine particulates, yes.  But don’t open fires also emit large amounts of CO2 as well?

  17. Ray Kujawa

    You forgot, “All of the Above.”

  18. Z in MT

    Another issue is whether 176 million miles annually is a lot?   Just ask Dave Carter how many miles an average truck driver lays down every year.  Essentially each fire pit is about equivalent to a single truck, and I can guarantee that there are a lot more than 857 trucks in the greater LA area.

  19. Tennessee Patriot

    Matthew:

    I would bet those fires burned 24 hours a day and not just at night.