A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications found that the increasing human presence in Antarctica is causing more snow melt — bad news for a frozen world already battling the effects of human-caused global warming.
Take bright, white snow and sprinkle some black pollution on it, and it’s a recipe for melting.
“(Antarctica) is currently one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet,” said Alia Khan, a snow and ice scientist at Western Washington University. “Snow is already melting due to impacts of climate change, but this is an exacerbating factor on snow melt.”
The researchers sampled snow around tourist sites and research-heavy locations from 2016 to 2020 and found the black carbon found in those samples was considerably more abundant than levels measured elsewhere on the continent.
The research found the highest levels of soot were measured near the Argentine research station in Hope Bay on the Trinity Peninsula, near the northern most part of Antarctica.
“(Tourist) ships in Antarctica generally use less-polluting marine diesel, and some vessels are supplementing fuel with battery power,” the study said. But the researchers note that their results show there’s more to be done to reduce pollution as tourism continues to increase.
Roughly 74,000 tourists visited Antarctica during the summer of 2019-2020, the researchers reported, a 32% increase from 2018-2019 and more than twice as many as a decade ago.
Khan said this study was important not just to understand what’s happening in Antarctica, but because global climate models — which scientists use to predict environmental changes decades and centuries in advance — need a better grasp on the impact of snow albedo on the climate system.
“The snow albedo effect is one of the largest uncertainties in regional and global climate modeling right now,” Khan told CNN. “That’s one of the motivations for the study, is to quantify the impact of black carbon in Antarctica due to local emissions from research interests, activities and the role of black carbon in the global loss of ice.”
Marilyn Raphael, a geography professor and director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, explained that messing with the Antarctic could throw our planet’s delicate balance out of whack.
“[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,” Raphael said.
Antarctica’s sea ice is also important to maintain a balance in atmospheric circulation, Raphael said. This circulation drives the winds and is the means by which energy is transported into or out of the continent.
“If the atmospheric circulation changes, the global climate changes,” she said.
“Everything we do has consequences,” Raphael said. “We need to educate ourselves about those consequences, especially in systems that we know relatively little about. We have to be careful that we don’t upset the climate balance.”