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Coal Soot Responsible for Melting Glaciers in European Alps

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First Posted: Sep 04, 2013 09:36 AM EDT
Coal Soot Responsible for Glacier Retreat in European Alps
(Photo : Wikipedia)

New scientific research suggests that coal soot may have been responsible for melting glaciers in the Alps during the Industrial Revolution.

Live Science reports that during the "Little Ice Age," a period of cool climates in the 19th century, coal soot surged across Western Europe, causing the abrupt and destructive retreat of ice glaciers between 1860 and 1930.

For years, scientists strove to discover the cause for the unexpected retreat, failing to find answers in the climate record. This time, researchers based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California focused on the human factor of the cause, and they found that coal soot or carbon has quite a potential impact on snow melt. With the Industrial Revolution's coal burning at its peak, coal soot was a major pollutant at the time of the Little Ice Age.  

Live Science explains that the glacier retreat is prompted when soot settles on snow in in mass quantities, creating "dark, heat-absorbent film on the otherwise reflective white surface of the snow." As a result, the snowy surface soaks up heat more than it normally would, causing the glacial ice right below the surface to thin down and to retreat.  

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To determine their hypothesis, the team examined the level of soot in various ice cores brought in from European mountain glaciers. The measured soot quantities were used as the basis for estimating the carbon deposit that would have affected the ice glaciers in the Alps, and with the data gathered the team came up with a "computer model of glacial behavior." The conclusion is that coal soot have had been potent enough to melt the ice glacier and cause them to retreat.

Author of the study Waleed Abdalati says that, "this study uncovers some likely human fingerprints on our changing environment," according to Live Science.  Abdalati also stressed that the study indeed puts emphasis on the fact that destructive human behavior has a potent effect on the environment. "It's a reminder that the actions we take have far-reaching impacts on the environment in which we live," he said.

The research study was published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 2 issue.

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