According to NASA, the global standard limiting sulphur in ship fuel reduced artificial “ship track” clouds to record-low levels in 2020. Pandemic-related disruptions played a secondary role.
rawing on nearly two decades of satellite imagery, researchers found that the number of ship tracks fell significantly after a new fuel regulation went into effect.
Scientists used advanced computing techniques to create the first global climatology of ship tracks. They used artificial intelligence to automatically identify ship tracks across 17 years of daytime images (2003-2020) captured by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite.
Without this kind of complete and large-scale sampling of ship tracks, we cannot begin to completely understand this problem
said lead author Tianle Yuan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
According to the Yuan and colleagues, similar but regionally defined sulfur regulations – such as an IMO Emission Control Area in effect since 2015 off the west coast of the U.S. and Canada – had not had the desired effect because operators altered their routes and charted longer courses to avoid designated zones.
While analyzing 2020 data, the researchers found that ship-track density fell that year in every major shipping lane. Ship-based tracking data indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic played a role by decreasing global shipping traffic by 1.4% for a few months.
But this change alone could not explain the large decrease in observed ship tracks, which remained at record-low levels through several months of 2021
the researchers concluded, adding that the new global fuel regulation played the dominant role in reducing ship tracks in 2020.
Over the long span of their analysis, Yuan and colleagues also found that fluctuations in economic activity leave distinct traces in the satellite record. In particular, Trans-Pacific ship track patterns between Asia and the Americas reflect dips and spikes in trade.
As outlined in the study, a general upward trend in shipping activity between 2003 and 2013 dropped for about a year in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. An even sharper decrease between 2014 and 2016 likely reflected a slowdown in Chinese imports and exports of raw materials and commodities.
Beyond their world trade significance, ship tracks can serve as case studies for an element of climate change:
Ship tracks are great natural laboratories for studying the interaction between aerosols and low clouds, and how that impacts the amount of radiation Earth receives and reflects back to space. That is a key uncertainty we face in terms of what drives climate right now