Global — Polar explorers witnessed pollution in the Arctic as early as 1870, according to a new study conducted by U scientists.
Tim Garrett, a professor of meteorology, said that he and many other scientists have been interested in understanding pollution from industries and how that pollution affects the Arctic. However, little was known about how early pollution was detected.
Garrett and his collaborator, Lisa Verzella, a former undergraduate student at the U, published their findings about Arctic pollution in the March issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The article gives a time line of when pollution was first noticed. Garrett said the first discovery of pollution in the Arctic was made in the 1950s, but wasn’t studied in detail until the 1970s.
“I thought that this was the first time that this has really been observed,” Garrett said. “What we found was that this was not only seen but was well-known in the late 1800s, but the information had been forgotten.”
“Arctic Haze,” an aerosol haze that settled onto the ice to create a layer of grayish or sometimes brownish dust containing metallic particles, is likely to have originated during the Industrial Revolution.
“Coal was the primary energy source which was being used at the point for powering industrial civilization,” Garrett said. He also said that it is hard to confirm if the haze came from the Industrial Revolution. What they do know is what early explorers describe in their findings is consistent with the theory.
“Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was the first to describe the haze,” Garrett said. Nordenskiöld, famous for being the first person to successfully navigate the Northeast Passage to Asia from the Atlantic, described the haze as ice-dust. He said that the ice-dust contained “metallic iron, which could be drawn out by a magnet.” Nordenskiöld believed the dust to be cosmic and possibly from a meteor.
Garrett said that pollution from mid-latitudes aggravates Arctic warming and that back in the 1800s, it was worse than it is today.
“The Arctic is a lot cleaner now than it was two decades ago,” he said. “Dirty industrialization cleaned up after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is still the carbon dioxide effect and the amount of emissions is higher than it was two decades ago, but there is a contributing effect that may be coming from the pollution that appears to be decreasing.”
After fossil-fuel combustion became more efficient in the mid-1900s, the levels of pollution in the Arctic dropped dramatically, but Garrett thinks that we might be seeing another increase.
“China’s growth may be contributing to pollution in the Arctic,” Garrett said.