Atmospheric composition

Black carbon

Black carbon is the fancy name for soot. And like carbon dioxide, it’s causing changes in the Arctic climate.

View the NOAA Video on Black Carbon.


Black carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal and diesel, and from forest fires, and cookstoves. The majority reaching the Arctic comes from North America and Eurasia.

Studies suggest that black carbon is contributing to the acceleration of sea ice melting in the Arctic.  Loss of this ice would lead to more rapid warming and possibly irreversible climate change.

Black carbon is dark in color and warms the Earth in two ways:  When it’s in the air, the particles absorb sunlight and generate heat in the atmosphere.  This can affect cloud formation and rain patterns.  When it covers snow and ice, the sun’s radiation is absorbed instead of being reflected back into the atmosphere. This again generates heat and speeds up melting.

It’s like wearing a black shirt on a sunny day.  You’re going to feel hot. To stay cooler, you would wear a light-colored shirt that would reflect the sun’s warmth.

Scientists from around the world are studying black carbon from all possible angles.  They’re using ships, snowmobiles, weather balloons, as well as manned and unmanned aircraft to collect data.

The instruments on board measure the total numbers of particles in the atmosphere, including the number of soot particles, and chemicals that can identify where the soot comes from.  They also measure incoming radiation from the sun and the reflectivity of snow and ice covered surfaces.  Newly fallen snow is also analyzed to trace where the black carbon is coming from.

The bad news is that black carbon is contributing to the acceleration of sea ice melting in the Arctic. The good news is that since black carbon is a particle and not a gas, it doesn’t last very long in the atmosphere.  This means reducing the amount people produce can have immediate effects on the rate of climate change.

Scientists are hopeful that their research findings from the Arctic will help world leaders develop strategies for change, so that black carbon can no longer leave a dirty footprint on our world.

Glossary

Citation

(2012). Black carbon. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbf3397896bb431f6ac31d