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Dirty snow may warm Arctic as much as greenhouse gases

The global warming debate has focused on carbon dioxide emissions, but scientists at UC Irvine have determined that a lesser-known mechanism -- dirty snow -- can explain one-third or more of the Arctic warming primarily attributed to greenhouse gases.

Snow becomes dirty when soot from tailpipes, smoke stacks and forest fires enters the atmosphere and falls to the ground. Soot-infused snow is darker than natural snow. Dark surfaces absorb sunlight and cause warming, while bright surfaces reflect heat back into space and cause cooling.

“When we inject dirty particles into the atmosphere and they fall onto snow, the net effect is we warm the polar latitudes,” said Charlie Zender, associate professor of Earth system science at UCI and co-author of the study. “Dark soot can heat up quickly. It’s like placing tiny toaster ovens into the snow pack.”

The study appears this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Dirty snow has had a significant impact on climate warming since the Industrial Revolution. In the past 200 years, the Earth has warmed about .8 degree Celsius. Zender, graduate student Mark Flanner, and their colleagues calculated that dirty snow caused the Earth’s temperature to rise .1 to .15 degree, or up to 19 percent of the total warming.

In the past two centuries, the Arctic has warmed about 1.6 degrees. Dirty snow caused .5 to 1.5 degrees of warming, or up to 94 percent of the observed change, the scientists determined.

The amount of warming by dirty snow varied from year to year, with higher temperatures in years with many forest fires. Greenhouse gases, which trap outgoing energy, are primarily responsible for the remaining temperature increase and are considered the Earth’s most important overall climate changing mechanism. Other human influences on Arctic climate change are particles in the atmosphere, including soot; clouds; and land use.

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Source:University of California - Irvine


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