Glaciers – The Dark Side. It’s Not the CO2 Carbon

Ed Caryl has become a regular contributor here, and today he presents insights on the causes of glacial melt. Here he discusses how absorption of solar energy by soot and Black Carbon contribute significantly to glacial melting and that CO2 is a minor factor.
Glaciers – The Dark Side. It’s Not the CO2 Carbon

by Ed Caryl

The global warming “hockey stick”, invented by Dr. Michael Mann, has been proven to be a distortion. [i]  But if carbon dioxide is not significantly warming the planet, then why are most northern glaciers shrinking?

Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, glaciers have been receding, dramatically in the first few thousand years of warming when the oceans rose by 120 meters. The remaining glaciers have been receding since the end of the “Little Ice Age” in the early 1800s. This is normal. Compared to an ice age, it is warm.

There is evidence that this retreat has stopped and even slightly reversed in the last ten years for some glaciers; those on Mount Shasta in California are examples. These have increased in mass because of greater snowfall. Glaciers in Alaska, California, Europe, and South Greenland are still receding. Some of the melt of South Greenland is because of the Atlantic Ocean.[ii]

The following temperature plots are of the sea off the west coast of Greenland. For a full resolution, better quality graphic go to the link. The years shown are 1992 to 1999.

and 2000 – 2007:As the above chart shows, the Atlantic Ocean off southern Greenland began warming in the early 1990’s and is only now beginning to cool. This local warming is due to the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO), a natural Atlantic cycle with a period of about 70 years described here. But not all of the Greenland melting is due to the warm Atlantic.

Soot and Black Carbon

Glaciers are melting in the Alps, Alaska, Canada, most of the Sierra Nevada in California, and the Himalayas because of the other carbon emission: soot. This is known in the literature as Black Carbon. You can even see the geographic source in the map below, south Asia, China, and Russia. The emission sources are coal burning, bio-fuel (including dung), diesel engines, fuel-wood smoke, forest fires, and other incomplete combustion processes that take place in highly populated areas.

The result is clearly visible in nearly any photo of a melting ice field or glacier. Soot is visible also on Greenland glaciers. See here for a photo from National Geographic (also shown to the left). Note the black stains in the ice field; that is Black Carbon. The soot is deposited on the snow in the winter and spring. As the snow melts, it gets concentrated on the surface as the melt water drains away between the ice crystals. When the melt gets down to smooth ice, the soot concentrates in cracks. The sunlight heats the cracks, widening them.

Clean snow melts slowly because 99 percent of the sunlight is reflected away. Dirty snow or ice melts quite quickly because much more of the sunlight is absorbed as heat by the soot. 10 parts per billion of soot in freshly fallen snow is enough to significantly enhance melting.

Soot on glacial tongues in Northern Bhutan. This NASA photo shown below is from here.

The problem is very acute in places like the Swiss Alps, which are surrounded by industrial nations burning a lot of diesel fuel. Those glaciers are disappearing rapidly. The Alaskan and Canadian glaciers are receding because of soot from China. The problem has been recognized in the Himalayas. There is substantial disagreement (a factor of 200 on how much melt forcing takes place), though, on the extent of the problem. A quote from this document:

Black carbon on snow during spring melt in the Tibetan Plateau, for example, creates forcing rates 200 times higher than was assumed for black carbon on snow in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

Here is a map of worldwide black carbon optical thickness from above, and concentration on the surface:

Source: NASA, Dorothy Koch and James Hansen here.

Note how much carbon is in the high Arctic, compared to that at the equator and further south. NASA admits that soot is part of the melting glacier problem, but downplays its importance. They hedge their bets on the subject.[iii] But some of the analysis views soot as an aerosol, and some of it as soot in freshly fallen snow. Only passing mention is made of concentrated soot resulting from melting.

A recent article states that half of the Arctic warming since 1890 may be due to Black Carbon. If that is true, perhaps some of the world’s warming in the last century is due to black soot, and not CO2. Read here.

Black Carbon is much easier to curb than CO2. The European Union has already put severe restrictions on Black Carbon emissions from diesel engines. In the U.S., the EPA has done the same. The time frame of effectiveness is also much shorter for Black Carbon. Eliminate a source, and the Black Carbon from that source is washed out of the atmosphere in days or just a few weeks. On a glacier, the problem will be much reduced in one snow season.

The problem is that there are many sources, all over the populated world. In Asia, cooking fires are a major source, so supplying and improving cook-stoves should be a priority. Low quality cooking fuel, such as animal dung, should be discouraged. In China, coal-fired power plants produce most of their electricity, and are planned to produce more in the future. China must insure that these plants use the very latest in technology to prevent Black Carbon emissions. In Africa and South America, forest clearing fires are a major source, so preventing rain-forest destruction should be a double priority.

For even more information on Black Carbon, see here, and here.

[i] For more on the hockey stick:, The Hockey Stick Illusion by A. W. Montford, here, and many others.
[ii] South West Greenland Ocean Temperature. (2009). In UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. Retrieved 19:53, January 3, 2010 from
[iii] See:

18 responses to “Glaciers – The Dark Side. It’s Not the CO2 Carbon”

  1. DirkH

    The first photo in your post… Imagine the position of the photographer! He must have straddled over the crevasse!

  2. Bob in Castlemaine

    A very interesting article. Somewhat justifies the efforts made during recent decades particularly by the power industry to achieve cleaner combustion.

    Is it clear just what impact black carbon has on the albedo of non-snow covered land?

  3. DirkH

    O/T: Der Stern reports about the new cooling fluid for car AC’s: R-1234yf.
    It’s flammable and sets HF free when burning (not high frequency but fluor-hydrogen). Advantage: It’s 20 times as expensive as the old stuff R-134a, and has less “global warming potential”. German car industry wanted to replace R-134a with harmless CO2 but global industry alliances want to push through R-1234yf as new global standard.

    Better drive a car without A/C from 2011 on.

    1. Ed Caryl

      Isn’t HF hydrofluoric acid? That’s exceedingly nasty stuff.

      1. DirkH

        Yes. That and the flammability is the major concern. German researchers did tests according to Der Stern and the HF made the glass panes go blind.

        1. DirkH

          Good German post about this here; with a video where a rupture of the cooling cycle is induced. The current R-134a doesn’t burn when it comes into contact with the 600 deg. C hot motor parts; the new alternative R-1234yf does.

          The makers of R-1234yf describe it as “somewhat flammable”; and it will be used as a drop-in replacement for R-134a beginning with Q4/2010.

          Sorry for hijacking your thread, Ed, but i found out about this today and it’s nasty and must be stopped; and this is one of the few times i think the enviros in Germany are right; they want CO2 as cooling fluid. The hardware is developed but it would require changes to existing manufacturing lines to switch production, that’s why automakers are reluctant to switch.

  4. Ed Caryl

    Not completely clear. “Brown Haze” can be cooling or warming depending on the underlying albedo. I think on the recent Russia situation, it may have been warming. I may try to figure that out. Like all climate questions, the deeper you go, the more questions come up.

  5. Ed Caryl

    That was a reply to Bob.

  6. R. de Haan

    We will not be able to curb the “black carbon” and soot from wild fires, volcanic emissions and the sand and dust picked up from our fields and deserts.

    In Europe where emissions measurements are obligatory over 60% of the particles originate from natural sources.

    I think we are swapping one purple crocodile for another one here.

    Don’t think I am against initiatives to clean up our emissions.
    But please let us restrain from any alarmism.

    We had dirty snow before the industrial revolution, nothing new here.

    1. Ed Caryl

      But we can make the purple crocodile 40% smaller.

  7. R. de Haan

    Dust, smoke and haze

    No way we will be able to control black carbon or soot in any significant way beyond the measures that are already in place in the West.

    Hope you get my point and close the subject.

    1. Ed Caryl

      Look at the map of soot sources. The carbon is coming from population centers, not natural sources.

  8. R. de Haan

    No Ed Carl, we have arrived at our limits to filter out Industrial particles.

    Fine dust caught in the emission network is caused by:
    – break dust
    – tire wear
    – the burning of wood in open fire places (this is a big one in many regions)
    – non filtered diesel engines and generators, agricultural equipment which has no serious restrictions
    – natural dust (a lot comes from the Sahara)
    – bio particles like pollen etc.

    In Western Europe and the USA we are really at the end of the road to make our air cleaner than it already is and just like our surface water is as clean as it gets under the current emission legislation.

    What could bring a considerable improvement is to allow diesel car, truck and tractor engines to run on diesel and Liquid Petrol Gas at the same time.

    It would only need a relative small LPG tank, a slave controller and a single injector that injects the LPG into the fuel pump.

    This would not only completely clean up the diesel particle emissions because all particles are burned, lower NOX levels, but also increase the engine performance, reduce the overall fuel consumption and lower the fuel costs at an investment compared to that of a diesel particle filter (around 600 Euro’s)

    Unfortunately the application of dual fuel in Europe is forbidden by law.


  9. Harold Pierce Jr

    I ask a simple question: Since 1900 where have the many billions of pounds of rubber and asphalt dust gone? The short answer is anywhere and everywhere.

    I once read that several billion pounds of tire dust is released yearly in the US. The fine dust from tires and asphalt probably act accelerants for bush fires that occurs in southern California.

    1. Ed Caryl
  10. R. de Haan

    Harold, the pink crocodile of human induced black carbon is similar to the pink crocodile of human induced CO2 or the Phyto Plankton reduction story.

    There is so much dust in the atmosphere by natural causes that even the tons of rubber caused by tire wear simply disappear in the real big numbers.
    The hundreds of millions of tons of dust stirred up by the wind moving over the Gobi, Sahara and other deserts, the hundreds of millions of tons of dust and particles set free during natural forrest fires all over the world and hundreds of millions of tons of emissions from our volcano’s.

    You won’t see the effects from tire wear from space but you can certainly see the forrest fires, the volcanic eruptions and the dust storms.

    Yet again, it’s all a matter of common sense.

    The rubber dust, most of it sticks to the road and is washed into the sewer where it is mixed with dirt and sewage.
    Modern sewage plants contain trillions of bacteria that clean up the sewage and one of the products that comes is fresh earth for your garden or your balcony flowers.

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