Pollution from Tourism and Research Speeding Antarctic Snowmelt

Pollution from Tourism and Research Speeding Antarctic Snowmelt

Antarctica doesn't have any permanent residents, but an increasing number of people are visiting the snowy South Pole continent. As a result, a new study finds that black carbon pollution caused by burning fossil fuels from cruise ships and research station generators is contributing to Antarctica's snowmelt. Because black carbon coats the snow, it becomes less reflective and absorbs more solar radiation, which speeds up the melt.

The highest concentration of pollution was near the Argentine research station in Hope Bay. Despite tourism doubling between 2010 and 2020, the study estimates that the average researcher’s black carbon impact is 10 times higher than that of a tourist, as researchers regularly use diesel-powered vessels, planes, and generators.

The YEARS Project: Black Carbon, March 19, 2021.

Why This Matters

Antarctica is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet. While primary drivers of temperature rise are carbon pollution and global warming, black carbon is still a factor speeding up a process already underway. This year, the continent is expected to hit a record low of sea ice cover. These changes impact Antarctic wildlife, like penguin populations that are declining as the ice melts, and global patterns like atmospheric circulation.

"[Antarctica] is sitting there pretty much silently all year. But, if it weren't there, in the state that it is meant to be, the balance that we have in the climate system -- the balance that we enjoy in the Northern Hemisphere -- will no longer be," Marilyn Raphael, a geography professor and director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, told CNN.

More Melting

In 2017, iceberg A68a was the sixth-largest iceberg on record when it calved from the ice sheet. When it disintegrated in 2021, it dumped 152 billion tons of fresh water near the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. Additionally, the Thwaites Glacier aka the "Doomsday Glacier" is facing catastrophic collapse earlier than expected.

Ice melt at both the Antarctic and Arctic poles can raise sea levels across the world. The latest NOAA projections estimate that US coastlines will see an average 1 foot of sea level rise by mid-century.

PBS: Melting of the Thwaites Glacier could rewrite the global coastline, December 15, 2021.

Now This: How Melting Arctic Ice Affects the Earth, August 22, 2021.

WW0 Conversation: Dr. Michalea King and John Kerry Instagram Live conversation streamed on September 24, 2020.