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Soot pollution is causing snow to melt in Antarctica. That's according to new research published today. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that pollution is exacerbating melting caused by global warming.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The study focuses on part of Antarctica that's relatively easy to get to. The West Antarctic Peninsula extends like a finger up toward South America.
Alia Khan is a glaciologist at Western Washington University. She's been to the peninsula multiple times, and it sounds gorgeous.
ALIA KHAN: Big icebergs that have broken off of the ice sheet and are floating in the ocean, lots of penguin rookeries.
HERSHER: More and more people are visiting - nearly 75,000 tourists during the 2019-2020 season, plus scientists, like Khan, who arrive on ships and planes, drive around, use electrical generators that run diesel or gasoline, all of which releases exhaust full of tiny black soot particles. And those particles coat the snow. They're too small to see, but altogether, they make a big difference.
KHAN: It's like wearing a dark T-shirt on a hot day - a black T-shirt versus a white T-shirt. It absorbs a lot more of that incoming solar radiation.
HERSHER: Khan and colleagues estimate that the heat trapped by soot pollution is causing an extra inch of snowpack shrinkage each summer in Antarctica. Their study was published today in the journal Nature Communications.
Now, any snowmelt is bad news these days because climate change is already driving catastrophic amounts of melting. An extra inch of lost snow each year is not going to be the thing that causes an ice sheet to collapse. But it's still important to rein in soot pollution in Antarctica before it gets out of control like it already has in the Arctic.
Pamela Miller runs Alaska Community Action on Toxics, an environmental group. She says in Alaska, soot melts snow and ice and causes respiratory disease.
PAMELA MILLER: It's a huge concern here in Alaska, as well as around the Arctic.
HERSHER: Requiring electric ships and solar power could help prevent that kind of pollution in the Antarctic, the authors of the new study note. But right now, burning fossil fuels is still the norm, which troubles Khan because she visits Antarctica every year.
KHAN: I find this to be a very difficult ethical question.
HERSHER: On one hand, she's there to collect crucial data about disappearing ice and snow, but those data show her visit makes the problem worse.
KHAN: It really does make us think twice about how frequently we need to visit the continent and what kinds of regulations should be placed on tourism as well.
HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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