In 2010, a team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mounted instruments on an aircraft and the vessel Atlantis to capture emissions from container ships off California's coast. The team found that as container ships shifted from bottom-of-the-barrel bunker fuel to low-sulfur fuels, air pollution plummeted, with some pollutants dropping by as much as 90 percent. Surprised? Neither are we.

Clean fuel regulations enforced within 24 miles of California's coast and voluntary vessel slowdowns substantially reduce air pollution caused by near-shore ships, according to NOAA. In particular, the research team discovered that emissions of health-damaging pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, dropped by nearly 90 percent.

While it's promising to know that emissions drop dramatically by simply switching fuel and slowing down, there's no way to enforce these guidelines when vessels hit international waters. So, even though California can limit emissions near its coast, most vessels switch bank to the dirty, dirty bunker fuel when beyond the 24-mile enforcement zone.
Show full PR text
NOAA-led study: Air pollution caused by ships plummets when vessels shift to cleaner, low-sulfur fuels

September 12, 2011

NOAA researchers and collaborators used instruments aboard a research aircraft and the NOAA-sponsored Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's research vessel Atlantis (pictured) to make a detailed study of emissions from a container ship off California in 2010. The team found that as the container ship shifted to low-sulfur fuels and slowed down near the coast, air pollution emissions plummeted, with some pollutants dropping by as much as 90 percent.

New clean fuel regulations in California and voluntary slowdowns by shipping companies substantially reduce air pollution caused by near-shore ships, according to a new NOAA-led study published online today in Environmental Science & Technology.

The study examined a container ship operating under a 2009 California regulation requiring that ships switch to low-sulfur fuels as they approach the California coast, and also adhering to a voluntary state slowdown policy, intended to reduce pollution. The research team found that emissions of several health-damaging pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, dropped by as much as 90 percent.

Findings of this study could have national and global significance, as new international regulations by the International Maritime Organization require vessels to switch to lower-sulfur fuel near U.S. and international coasts beginning in 2012. The research team found reductions in emissions even where none were expected, meaning even greater reductions in air pollution, and associated respiratory health effects in humans, than regulators originally estimated.

"This study gives us a sense of what to expect in the future, for the people of California, the nation, and even the globe," said Daniel Lack, chemist with NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. "This really is where science gets fun – a study with first-rate institutions, equipment and people, probing the effects of policy. It's important to know that the imposed regulations have the expected impacts. The regulators want to know, the shipping companies want to know, and so do the people."

The container ship Margrethe Maersk, operated by the Maersk Line, steams toward California in May 2010. NOAA researchers and collaborators studied the ship's emissions in detail from a research aircraft (from which this photo was taken) and a research ship. The team found that as the container ship shifted to low-sulfur fuels and slowed down near the coast, air pollution emissions plummeted, with some pollutants dropping by as much as 90 percent.

In May 2010, a NOAA research aircraft flew over a commercial container ship, Maersk Line's Margrethe Maersk, about 40 miles off the coast of California. Researchers on the aircraft used sophisticated custom instruments to 'sniff' the ship's emissions before the ship switched to lower-sulfur fuels (by law, within 24 miles of the California coast) and slowed down voluntarily.

A few days later, scientists aboard the NOAA-sponsored Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's research vessel Atlantis sampled emissions of the same ship as it cruised slowly within the low-sulfur regulated zone.

Sulfur dioxide levels, which were expected to drop, did do so, plummeting 91 percent from 49 grams of emissions per kilogram of fuel to 4.3 grams. Sulfur dioxide is best known as a precursor to acid rain, but can degrade air quality in other ways, directly and indirectly through chemical reactions in the atmosphere. In particular, emissions of sulfur dioxide lead to formation of particulate matter in the atmosphere which poses serious public health concerns.

Particulate matter pollution, regulated because it can damage people's lungs and hearts, dropped 90 percent from 3.77 grams of emissions per kg of fuel to 0.39 grams.

Unexpectedly, black carbon levels also dropped, cut by 41 percent, the team reported. Black carbon comprises dark-colored particles that can warm the atmosphere and also degrade air quality.

NOAA scientists Steve Brown (standing) and Nick Wagner (also with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences) check data from an instrument aboard a research aircraft in California last year. NOAA researchers and collaborators used sophisticated instruments aboard this aircraft and a research ship to study a container ship's emissions in detail. The team found that as the ship shifted to low-sulfur fuels and slowed down near the coast, air pollution emissions plummeted, with some pollutants dropping by as much as 90 percent.

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Canadian equivalent, Environment Canada, estimated that shifting to low-sulfur fuels near coasts could save as many as 8,300 lives per year in those two countries, and ease the acute respiratory symptoms faced by another 3 million. But that 2009 assessment did not include the observed drops in several pollutant categories that Lack and his colleagues found, so the authors suggest the impacts could be greater.

Finally, the new paper discusses the net radiative (warming vs. cooling) effect of the ship's fuel switch. Changes in the emissions of various air pollutants – some which have a warming effect, others which have cooling effects – likely mean net warming.

The project was funded by NOAA and the California Air Resources Board and conducted in close collaboration with the Maersk Line.

"These scientific findings clearly demonstrate that ships off our coast now emit significantly less sulfur pollution than in the past," said California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols. "This is good news for California and for the nation. When the federal regulations kick in for ships to use low-sulfur fuel, communities throughout America that live near shipping lanes and next to ports will see clean air benefits."

The new paper, Impact of Fuel Quality Regulation and Speed Reductions on Shipping Emissions: Implications for Climate and Air Quality, is available at the Environmental Science & Technology website. Lack's 28 co-authors are from 10 research institutions from both the U.S. and Canada.

NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 21 Comments
      Dave D
      • 9 Hours Ago
      Wow, this is really disturbing. All the wimping and whining we do about everything else and this is getting almost totally ignored? We shouldn't allow ANY vessel that is capable of running on this sludge to even dock in the US. You wouldn't let someone walk up and SH|T on your front door step every time they brought the mail so why do we put up with this????? WTF people?
      diffrunt
      • 3 Years Ago
      How much more is the low sulfur cost per mile? Bring all the offshores back home & we wouldn't need so many stinkin container ships.
      Marco Polo
      • 3 Years Ago
      Interesting. Only 9 people could be bothered posting on an environmental issue that actually kills people, yet a light hearted comment by a TV presenter on Top Gear attracts 104 comments! Where are all those ardent conspiracy theorists? Where's the DF's and the other "not green" commentators. Apathy is why this practise is allowed to continue
      • 9 Hours Ago
      @ Marco Polo, I am not very surprised whit this news. Only I don't know if there is a problem. 90% of all goods are transported by ship since it's the cheapest and most efficient way of transport. transporting a container from Hong Kong to Rotterdam by ship costs equal amount of fuel to transport the same container let then 80 miles by truck!! The problem, according to this article, is the sulphur and particles. You stated that Bunker Fuel is a fuel of choice and could be abolished. I don't this happen very soon. The main reason heavy fuel is a left over product is not produced! If we would make all heavy fuel into clean medium fuel there is not enough production capacity in the world to do this. Also this would cost massive amounts of CO2!! Also the price of the transport will go up! So I agree the actions taken to limit sulphur and particle emissions along the coast are good only to ban heavy fuel all along is large step away and the gain from that is limited!
      Jelly
      • 3 Years Ago
      All they have gotta do is stop guzzling using more oil than China, then California will loose its title as the biggest squanderer of oil on the planet earth the most unenvironmentally friendly wasteful bunch off people EVER.
      Mark Schaffer
      • 3 Years Ago
      Why is it impossible to monitor fuel type usage? Are these container ships not fueling while in a port?
        Rotation
        • 9 Hours Ago
        @Mark Schaffer
        Because the ships arrive in port using fuel they bought elsewhere. You don't know what they loaded up while overseas.
          Marco Polo
          • 9 Hours Ago
          @Rotation
          @Rotation Quite right, not only can ships refuel all over the world, there are even ocean-going black-market tenders operating from places like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Burma, Odessa, Eritrea etc. To make matters even more complicated ships often have many registrations. Making it difficult to determine the owner at any point of time.
      Marco Polo
      • 3 Years Ago
      Surprised? Eric Loveday's article highlighted the single largest source of air pollution, and yet the most overlooked. Bunker Oil use in a single large vessel can create more pollution than 50 million cars! Bunker Oil is used by nearly 100,000 ships! Bunker Oil pollution kills over 100,000 people in the Northern hemisphere per year. Bunker Oil usage creates health problems with more than 20 million per year. Bunker Oil is not a fuel of necessity, it's a fuel of choice. Bunker Oil escapes Carbon Tax, Emissions trading Schemes Bunker Oil seepage and Tank rupture are the oceans most pollutant poison. Bunker Oil atmospheric emissions end up in the oceans food chain Bunker Oil is not even very economic any longer. the saving have become very marginal. Bunker Oil usage could, and should, be abolished. What ever the morality, smokers decide to smoke! No one made a choice about this insidious carcinogenic pollutant. Go home, look at your children, parents, siblings, and loved ones, even your pets, and get very angry at your government, in whatever nation you live, if your nation allows ships rigged for bunker oil, into your ports. Who's guilty? The oil companies for producing Bunker Oil, The shipping companies for demanding Bunker Oil, the UN and IMO for weak regulations, your Government for allowing these ships into port,....or you? Yes, the most guilty is you, and me. We the ordinary citizens, whose apathy allows this toxic evil to flourish, unabated, just to save a little money on international shipping. The environmental impact of all the EV' manufactured in the next 50 years, all the solar, wind farms, whatever, pales into insignificance in comparison to this environmental nightmare. You want a cause to be angry about? An uncomplicated, realisable, cause where effective action can be taken immediately, without delay? A cause which Right and Left can both agree? A cause which the CEO's of BP,Chevron,Shell, Exxon, have all agreed with the most extreme tree hugging hippie, on the environmental impact? Then this is it! No doubts, No delay, Just abolition! Even trolls like DF, can't disagree! But, where are you all........?? Where is the noise of the crusade......??? Without your voices, where is the motivation for legislators....?? Your silence, is a measure of participation and collaboration in this crime against your families and fellow citizens. A betrayal of every ideal, everyone you love, everyone who loves you, your country, your planet, even your species! But mostly a deep betrayal of ourselves.
        EVSUPERHERO
        • 9 Hours Ago
        @Marco Polo
        Isn't bunker fuel a by product of gas refinement? Didn't we just read a article that CA fined two ships for not switching to a alternative to bunker fuel while coming within a certain range of a CA port. From what I remember commenter's said it will cost more for shipping or that the ships will go to a more friendly port to unload. If this is that bad of a problem, seems more should be done. Guess the shipping tycoons have a large lobbying force in Washington. I am looking at my dog Marco and I think she just coughed from bunker exhaust, it makes me angry. " Let me get you some oxygen girl, here, breath, deep breaths, their is that better?" She still looks sad and scared now.
          EVSUPERHERO
          • 9 Hours Ago
          @EVSUPERHERO
          No I would say you are pro big business essentialy. So this must be bad indeed. These big ships spend much time in the Columbia River getting to the Port of Portland. I hope we have laws stopping them from using this in our rivers. I drink a lot of milk and I don't want bunker fuel exhaust in it. I will be more aware of this from this point forward. It would be nice if they could make plastic of it or some such thing. As Solar Bart mentioned above it would probably create much Co2, one would have to pick the worst of two evils I suppose.
          Marco Polo
          • 9 Hours Ago
          @EVSUPERHERO
          Yep, bunker oil (or Marine grade 6 fuel ) is what you get when every cleaner, more valuable substance is removed from oil, the bottom of the barrel. It could be refined into other non-pollutant products, but it cheaper to sell as bunker oil! It's by far the most criminally irresponsible pollutant activity undertaken by commerce on the planet. The use of bunker oil has no defense, except it may, only may, save a little on the cost of freight. Lobbying, is not just in Washington. Internationally, every country puts this issue in the too hard basket. Yep, animals do suffer more than humans, because they are usually smaller. However, recent studies in Norway, Switzerland and the UK reveal high levels of 'transferable' carcinogens in farm Livestock bred for meat and milk. These toxins may also enter our food chain through crops and vegetables. I think those who know me, would not describe me as a wildeyed, anti-capitalist, conspiracy theorist! So when I say this is a bad environmental practice, you can be sure that I have been careful in my research!
        John R
        • 9 Hours Ago
        @Marco Polo
        Agreed. I guess if UN nations agree to outlaw the sale of bunker oil, the ships can't fill up on it. Of course, they can give the shipping companies a reasonable amount of time to make any retrofits to their engines if needed. But how to get to that point? It seems government doesn't listen. I guess if enough people complain to some of the big businesses that hire these ships, like Wal-Mart, it might have some success.
          Jelly
          • 9 Hours Ago
          @John R
          All they have gotta do is stop guzzling using more oil than China, then California will loose its title as the biggest squanderer of oil on the planet earth the most unenvironmentally friendly wasteful bunch off people EVER.
          Marco Polo
          • 9 Hours Ago
          @John R
          The most effective method is to use the old British method of categorising any ship fitted for the consumption of Bunker oil as being ineligible to enter any North American Port. All you need is Singapore, Japan, UK Holland and Australia to join, and Bunker becomes uneconomic to produce. Last year, drunken drivers accounted for just over 30% of all road fatalities in North America. (approx 12,000). The penalties for drunk driving while operating a motor vehicle are severe, and rightfully so. Yet twice as many North Americans will be killed by bunker oil emissions, and millions given death sentences and severe illnesses from a completely avoidable practise. Why all the indignation of the Gulf Oil spill? When a far more deadly oil product moves silently through the population spreading death and disease, with impunity? Can you tell me any other epidemic can can do this without an out cry? Look at the massive campaign to restrict the spread of AIDS. Vast sums of health and research monies spent. Yet deaths from the Aids epidemic in North America and Bunker oil carcinogens are frighteningly similar. Aids is avoidable, death from bunker oil is in the air you breath, and the food you eat.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Although ocean liners are long gone (except RMS Queen Mary 2), there are cruise liners that don't think of bunker or diesel oil as the only solution. Instead the preferred fuel is now methane (LBG/LNG) and such technology alongside the high-altitude sails among others should be used more on not only cruise liners but shipping as well where military-type reactors are not appropriate for emissions control (due to possibilities of radiation to commercial goods are unacceptable by insurance companies). After all, considering the vast quantities of fuel that these ships use, every ship that doesn't have bunker/diesel oil on them is a good improvement on the atmosphere as a large. In the meanwhile for other ships, slowing speed down seems the easiest option to monitor and save fuel and reduce pollution. Low-sulfur bunker oil has been debated due to its price to refine and monitor its use, but could be one of the short-term options with those study results.
      goodoldgorr
      • 3 Years Ago
      I said to recirculate these exhaust fumes in doing methanol and/or green algae farming then recirculate the stuff at the input, is it clear now?
      Ford Future
      • 3 Years Ago
      Can't they put Catalytic converters on these?
        Rotation
        • 9 Hours Ago
        @Ford Future
        Catalytic converters won't work because of the high sulfur content of the fuel. They'd just clog up. That's part of the reason they are trying to change the fuel used. Then maybe next step they can add catalytic converters. Note catalytic converters aren't magic. They don't make pollutants disappear. They just finish the combustion on partially burned hydrocarbons. Sulfur isn't a hydrocarbon so it wouldn't disappear in the converters even if they didn't clog up.
      Jelly
      • 3 Years Ago
      All they have gotta do is stop guzzling using more oil than China, then California will loose its title as the biggest squanderer of oil on the planet earth the most unenvironmentally friendly wasteful bunch off people EVER.
      SAM
      • 3 Years Ago
      Very interesting. I live in the South Bay area of LA (Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach) and often play beach volleyball on the weekends. I had noticed the last two summers have been much less smoggy than back in 2007-2008. Back then, there was often a brown haze where you couldn't even see up to around Santa Monica from Hermosa. Malibu and the mountains were completely obscured by smog. The past two summers however, it has been much more clear. I thought it was just a weird weather pattern causing it to be less smoggy.
    • Load More Comments