Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Fossil Fuel Emissions Found on Alaska's Glaciers

Climate
Fossil Fuel Emissions Found on Alaska's Glaciers

U.S. Geological Survey

A new study concludes that fossil fuel emissions are likely contributors to a substantial amount of organic carbon found on glaciers in Alaska.

Fossil fuel emissions, which contain organic carbon, can speed up the rate of glacier melt when deposited on glacier surfaces. In addition, the organic molecules associated with these deposits can be transported in rivers and streams, affecting downstream aquatic ecosystems. Knowledge of the source and age of organic carbon in glaciers allows for a better understanding of these and other impacts.

Prior research suggested that the main sources of organic carbon in Alaska's glaciers were from forests and peatlands overrun by glaciers as far back as ten thousand years ago. While old soil and plant material are still possible sources of glacial organic carbon, new research indicates that human-created, or anthropogenic, sources are also important.

"We knew the organic carbon present in Alaska's glaciers was old, but identifying the sources of this material has been difficult due to the lack of chemical data,"ˇ said U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist George Aiken.

While extensive burning of fossil fuels is, geologically speaking, a relatively modern practice, the fuels themselves and the resulting carbon emissions are ancient. This is because the fuels are formed from plants and microorganisms that lived millions of years ago.

"Now we know that a substantial amount of ancient organic matter associated with these and other glaciers is of anthropogenic origin," said Aiken.

Why Study Carbon Levels?

When organic matter and other materials from the atmosphere are deposited on the surface of a glacier, less sunlight can be reflected and, therefore, more radiation and heat are absorbed. Having these materials on snow and ice surfaces causes them to melt faster.

Another concern is impacts to ecosystems and species habitats. As an example, organic matter exported to coastal areas is a potential nutrient or food source for aquatic bacteria, phytoplankton, and small grazing zooplankton. Climate warming or other factors may change the amount and quality of organic carbon available to these organisms. These aquatic organisms are also the base of the food web for all aquatic communities.

"When trying to understand climate change and decipher the carbon cycle puzzle, we need to make sure that we are using all of the right pieces," said USGS scientist Rob Striegl. "As part of that puzzle, we are studying the source and amount of carbon flowing into the Arctic Ocean. An understanding of the complete picture allows for the most informed decisions to protect our environment."

"The Arctic is of special interest because what happens there, such as extensive glacier melt, has impacts on the rest of the world," said Striegl. "Glacier environments, especially those in the high latitudes of the Arctic, are also among the most sensitive to climate warming."

New Twist to Understanding Carbon in Glaciers

"Our new paper describes, for the first time, the detailed chemical composition of dissolved organic matter associated with glaciers and glacial meltwater in coastal Alaska and in Wyoming," said Aiken.

"This study adds a twist to previous understandings, showing there is another source of organic carbon out there that needs to be considered," said Striegl.

This study, published in the journal Nature Geosciences, was a collaborative effort of many institutions led primarily by the University of Alaska Southeast, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, Woods Hole Research Center, and the USGS.

The Role of USGS Science

Earlier studies by the USGS, in collaboration with university researchers, found the presence of ancient organic carbon in the Yukon River and traced it back to meltwater from glaciers. For further analyses, USGS scientists continued those collaborations to sample meltwater from Mendenhall Glacier and Herbert Glacier in southeastern Alaska. The samples were then analyzed at USGS and university laboratories to develop the conclusions outlined in this new study.

"This truly is a collaborative effort, taking the expertise of many scientists to put the story together on the source of the carbon,"ˇ said Striegl. "The original work of the USGS in the Yukon basin helped form the questions and lab results contributed to answering the questions; but it took specialized instrumentation and scientific expertise from several other organizations to determine the final answer."

Additional samples used for age dating and for other chemical characterization of the organic carbon of glaciers from other locations came from Gulkana Glacier in Alaska and from Fremont Glacier in Wyoming.

The Big Picture of Aquatic Carbon

The USGS has a long term goal of determining the source and fate of organic and inorganic carbon transported to coastal areas and oceans across the entire Nation. USGS research on the Yukon and other Arctic rivers is particularly focused on climate warming effects on mobilizing ancient carbon from permafrost to coastal regions and the Arctic Ocean. The USGS participates in the Arctic Great Rivers Observatory project, which is an international effort to study the six largest rivers, including the Yukon, which flow into the Arctic Ocean.

For more information, click here.

With restaurants and supermarkets becoming less viable options during the pandemic, there has been a growth in demand and supply of local food. Baker County Tourism Travel Baker County / Flickr

By Robin Scher

Beyond the questions surrounding the availability, effectiveness and safety of a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to question where our food is coming from and whether we will have enough.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tearing through the crowded streets of Philadelphia, an electric car and a gas-powered car sought to win a heated race. One that mimicked how cars are actually used. The cars had to stop at stoplights, wait for pedestrians to cross the street, and swerve in and out of the hundreds of horse-drawn buggies. That's right, horse-drawn buggies. Because this race took place in 1908. It wanted to settle once and for all which car was the superior urban vehicle. Although the gas-powered car was more powerful, the electric car was more versatile. As the cars passed over the finish line, the defeat was stunning. The 1908 Studebaker electric car won by 10 minutes. If in 1908, the electric car was clearly the better form of transportation, why don't we drive them now? Today, I'm going to answer that question by diving into the history of electric cars and what I discovered may surprise you.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A technician inspects a bitcoin mining operation at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec on March 19, 2018. LARS HAGBERG / AFP via Getty Images

As bitcoin's fortunes and prominence rise, so do concerns about its environmental impact.

Read More Show Less
OR-93 traveled hundreds of miles from Oregon to California. Austin Smith Jr. / Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs / California Department of Fish and Wildlife

An Oregon-born wolf named OR-93 has sparked conservation hopes with a historic journey into California.

Read More Show Less
A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on Sept. 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, was retired the following month. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

By David Drake and Jeffrey York

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The Big Idea

People often point to plunging natural gas prices as the reason U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shutting down at a faster pace in recent years. However, new research shows two other forces had a much larger effect: federal regulation and a well-funded activist campaign that launched in 2011 with the goal of ending coal power.

Read More Show Less