Impacts and Sources of Black Carbon in the Arctic: Insights from a 300-Year Svalbard Ice Core Record

December 11, 2023

Impacts and Sources of Black Carbon in the Arctic: Insights from a 300-Year Svalbard Ice Core Record

Scenic view of a body of water and snow-covered mountain and ice in blue waters under blue skies with clouds.

In a comprehensive study spanning 300 years (1700-2005) of an ice core from Svalbard in the European high Arctic, researchers examined the sources and characteristics of black carbon (BC) particles, revealing BC from biomass combustion consistently accounted for a more significant proportion throughout the ice core record compared to BC from fossil fuels.

BC, formed from the incomplete combustion of biomass and fossil fuels, significantly affects the warming of the atmosphere and accelerates the melting of snow and ice. This study aimed to shed light on the origins of BC in this sector of the Arctic region.

The findings revealed that biomass combustion was larger than that of fossil fuel and contributed around 60% to 70% of BC throughout the ice core record. However, there were periods of elevated fossil fuel contributions, notably between 1860 and 1920, and another increase starting in the 1960s-1970s, as indicated by radiocarbon measurements, organic compounds, and trace element data.

The study was part of an international research collaboration that included co-author Senior Research Associate Emilie Beaudon from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center's Ice Core Paleoclimatology Research Group and was recently published in AGU's JGR Atmospheres.

The study also employed atmospheric transport modeling, suggesting that the increased BC deposition observed at the glacier since the 1970s was linked to air masses from Far East Asia. The lack of field measurements on Arctic BC sources was identified as a challenge, hindering targeted efforts to mitigate climate change.

The research utilized various methods, including organic compound analyses, radiocarbon dating, and trace element analysis, to apportion the sources of BC in the ice core. While each of these analyses individually provided valuable insights, their combination improved their ability to distinguish BC emission sources in finer detail. The study emphasized the need for additional field-based observations to improve emission inventories and inform climate change mitigation strategies.

This study provides essential information about the sources and trends of BC in the Arctic region over the past three centuries. It highlights the complexity of BC source attribution and the potential of combining organic compound analyses, radiocarbon dating, and trace element analysis in understanding the origins of BC in remote environments.

Read more about this study by visiting the article on JGR Atmospheres or download a PDF copy.

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