Research Press Release

Environment: Human pollution in Antarctica may accelerate snow melting

Nature Communications

February 23, 2022

Black carbon pollution near Antarctica’s tourist-landing sites and research facilities may increase snow melting in these regions, according to a paper published in Nature Communications. The findings suggest that black carbon could cause the snowpack (the snow accumulated above the ground) to shrink by 23 millimetres every summer in the most impacted areas.

Fossil fuel and biomass burning produces black carbon that absorbs sunlight and warms the atmosphere. When black carbon settles onto snow, heat is trapped and melting increases. Human presence in Antarctica has risen substantially in recent decades, but the impacts of local black carbon emissions, likely increased following the recent surge in visitors, are yet to be quantified.

Sarah Feron, Raúl Cordero and colleagues measured black carbon concentrations in snow samples collected along a 2,000 km stretch of the northern Antarctica Peninsula, spanning areas with the most tourist and research activity, and more remote regions. The authors found that the snow around research facilities and tourist-landing sites contained more black carbon than in samples taken at remote sites. They calculated that black carbon in heavily impacted areas causes snowpack to shrink by up to 23 millimeters every summer. The authors estimate that an annual average of 53,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the tourist seasons between 2016 and 2020, and suggest the amount of black carbon attributable to each visitor may contribute to the melting of approximately 83 tons of snow each summer.

Feron and co-authors argue that methods to mitigate black carbon accumulation, such as using cleaner energy, hybrid or electric ships and limiting tourist visits, are needed to lessen the burden of human activities in the most visited regions of the continent.


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