Although carbon dioxide gets most of the attention, a major contributor to climate change is soot, or “black carbon.” A recent study looked at soot particles in the Arctic region, and the effects those particles might be having on the climate.
The Arctic region in particular is of special concern to scientists, as the rate of warming in that region has been substantially faster than global averages. In the past 100 years, the surface air temperature in the Arctic has risen about twice as quickly as the global average.
Unfortunately, a warming Arctic could speed up the effects of climate change. This is because the Arctic acts as the “air conditioner” of the planet, noted study participant Patricia Quinn of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Heat from other parts of the Earth moves to the Arctic in the circulating air and ocean water, and at least some of that warmth can radiate into space.” Furthermore, the snow and ice present in the Arctic acts as a giant reflector, sending much of the sun’s heat bouncing back out into space.
The presence of soot in the atmosphere above the Arctic, as well as deposited on the top of the snow and ice, is increasing the heating process. The black soot allows the region to absorb more heat, thereby increasing the amount of ice melt, which thereby decreases the region’s cooling capacity. It is a vicious warming cycle.
Fortunately, unlike carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for many years, airborne soot has a short atmospheric lifespan. Researchers note that by decreasing soot emissions, this major cause of warming could quickly be removed. Soot is most commonly produced by gas burning engines such as cars, planes and cargo ships, in addition to fossil fuel based electricity generation, the burning of forests and the use of wood or coal burning stoves.
Photo credit: princeton.edu/~mkopacz/research.html