Black carbon pollution from tourism and research activities in Antarctica causing snowmelt on the continent

Thursday, February 24, 2022


As per a new study, black carbon pollution from tourism and research activities in Antarctica is probably increasing snowmelt on the continent by an estimated 83 tonnes for each visitor.

Scientists have estimated that the black carbon produced by vessels, planes and diesel generators results in 23mm of additional snowmelt each summer in the most frequently visited areas of the ice-covered continent.

More than 74,000 tourists visited Antarctica in the 2019–2020 season, which is approximately double the figures from a decade ago.

A team of researchers tested the snow yearly between 2016 and 2020 at 28 sites spanning 2000kms from Antarctica’s northern tip to the Ellsworth Mountains.

They focused primarily on the Antarctic Peninsula, where about half of the research facilities on the continent are located and where around 95% of Antarctic tourist trips happened.

The team assessed that 53,000 tourists visited Antarctica annually between 2016 and 2020.

Study co-author Dr. Raúl Cordero from the University of Santiago Chile said that Antarctic snow is the cleanest on Earth, typically with baseline levels of black carbon around one part in a billion.

“That is 1000 times less than what you would find in the Himalayas, and 100 times less than what you can find in the Andes or in the Rocky Mountains,” Cordero said.

“What black carbon is doing is making the snow darker [so it] is absorbing more solar radiation,” Cordero said. “That extra energy is accelerating the melting of the snow.”

He believes that a restriction regarding the number of tourists to Antarctica is important.

“We estimated that … the snow that is melting faster because of the activities carried out by a researcher would be closer to 1000 tonnes,” Cordero said. “Every researcher is using vessels, planes, helicopters, generators – and everybody’s using diesel for powering these.”

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