Antarctica sees more melting due to black carbon pollution from tourism and research, study finds


There are a few places on Earth that humans haven’t been to waste and pollution that comes from us gas-guzzling carsthe coal thermal power we power our homes and dust and soot fall from the forest fire We did worse.

Now even Antarctic – the only continent without a permanent human habitation – is being changed by the ferocity that follows us wherever we go.

A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications shows that the increasing human presence in Antarctica is causing more snow to melt – bad news for an icy world already grappling with severe storms. effects of anthropogenic global warming.

Black carbon – darkness, dust pollution comes from burning fossil fuels – has settled in locations where tourists and researchers spend a lot of time, the scientists found. Even the smallest amounts of a dark pollutant can have a significant impact on a melt because of its very low “reflection” or reflectance: brightly colored things, like snow, reflect energy the sun and stay cool; Dark things, like black carbon, absorb the sun’s energy and warm up.

Take bright white snow and sprinkle some black pollution on it, and that’s a recipe for melting.

And what happens in Antarctica have global consequences. It’s a giant, white continent that reflects a significant amount of the sun’s energy back into space. Loss of ice and snow cover means warmer land and ocean temperatures, and that in turn causes more melting, becoming a vicious cycle of climate change.

“(Antarctica) is currently one of the fastest warming regions on the planet,” said Alia Khan, an ice scientist at Western Washington University. “The snow has melted due to the effects of climate change, but this is an exacerbating factor in the amount of snowmelt.”

Penguins are seen with a cruise ship in the background in Antarctica.  About 74,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the summer of 2019-2020, more than double what it was a decade ago, according to the IAATO.

The researchers sampled snow around tourist sites and research focus sites between 2016 and 2020 and found that the amount of black carbon found in those samples was significantly more abundant than in those samples. levels measured elsewhere on the continent.

The study found the highest levels of soot were measured near the Argentine research station at Hope Bay on the Trinity Peninsula, near much of the north of Antarctica.

“Cruise ships in Antarctica typically use less polluting diesel engines, and some are refueling with battery power,” the study said. But the researchers note that their results suggest that much more remains to be done to reduce pollution as tourism continues to increase.

The researchers report that about 74,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the summer of 2019-2020, up 32% from 2018-2019 and more than twice as many as a decade ago.

Khan said the study is important not only for understanding what is happening in Antarctica, but because global climate models – which scientists use to predict environmental changes decades in advance centuries and centuries – it is necessary to better capture the impact of albedo snow on the climate system.

“The snowfall effect is one of the biggest uncertainties in global and regional climate modeling right now,” Khan told CNN. “It is one of the driving forces behind the research to quantify the impact of black carbon in Antarctica due to local emissions from research and tourism activities over the region’s ice, which is very important. to quantify the role of black carbon in global ice loss. . ”

Marilyn Raphael, professor of geography and director of UCLA’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, explains that messing with Antarctica could throw our planet’s fragile balance into disarray.

“[Antarctica] sitting there in silence pretty much all year long. But, if it’s not there, in the state it is, then the balance we have in the climate system – the balance we enjoy in the Northern Hemisphere – will be gone.” Raphael said.

Tuesday’s study comes alongside an alarming record in Antarctica: the area of ​​ocean covered by sea ice around the continent would hit a new low this year. Raphael said changes in sea ice could also have global effects.

The sea ice in Antarctica is also important for maintaining a balance in the atmospheric circulation, Raphael said. This circulation drives the wind and is the means by which energy is transported into or out of the continent.

“If the atmospheric circulation changes, the global climate will change,” she said.

As waters warm and sea ice dries up, some Antarctic creatures increasingly find their homes uninhabitable. For example, colonies of penguins in Antarctica rely heavily on krill for their diet, and these krill depend on sea ice. Scientists have seen a startling decline in penguin colonies recently, when krill became harder to find.

“Everything we do has consequences,” says Raphael. “We need to educate ourselves about those consequences, especially in systems where we know relatively little. We have to be careful not to upset the climate balance.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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