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Coal Soot From Europe's Industrial Revolution Found in the Himalayas

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Researchers found byproduct of coal in an ice core extracted from Shishapangma Mountain in the Himalayas, seen above. ccdoh1 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New research has found that soot dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution made its way across Europe to settle on the top of the Himalayas, according to a new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The findings show the byproduct of coal burning dating back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1780. It was found in an ice core extracted from the Dasuopu glacier, at an elevation of over 23,600 feet, on the Shishapangma mountain, according to the study. Shishapangma is the world's 14th largest mountain.

The mountain, which had deposits of toxic material from the late 18th century, is 6,400 miles from London, where the Industrial Revolution started.

"Unintended consequences were and are still part of human history," lead author Paolo Gabrielli, from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, Ohio, told Newsweek. "I see irony in the fact that we humans did not learn this lesson and we still believe to have everything under control."

The research team from Ohio State that published the study was part of a march larger group of scientists that traveled to Dasuopu in 1997 to drill ice cores from the glacier, according to a press release from Ohio State. The ice cores are useful for providing a trove of data, including snowfall records, atmospheric circulation and other environmental changes over time. The Byrd Center has on of the world's largest collection of ice cores.

Gabrielli and his colleagues analyzed an ice core that they believe formed between 1499 and 1992, looking for 23 trace elements. They found higher-than-natural levels of a number of toxic metals, including cadmium, chromium, nickel and zinc, from around 1780. These metals are all by-products of burning coal, which were likely transported by winter winds, which travel around the globe from west to east, according to Cosmos Magazine.

"The Industrial Revolution was a revolution in the use of energy," Gabrielli said in a statement. "And so the use of coal combustion also started to cause emissions that we think were transported by winds up to the Himalayas."

However, Gabrielli did note that some of the trace materials found, notably zinc, may have come from large forest fires, especially the large ones used in the 19th century to clear land for agriculture, according to Cosmos Magazine.

"What happens is at that time, in addition to the Industrial Revolution, the human population exploded and expanded," Gabrielli said, as Cosmos Magazine reported. "And so there was a greater need for agricultural fields and, typically, the way they got new fields was to burn forests."

The most abundant contamination of toxic metals was found in layers frozen between 1810 and 1880, which researchers say was likely caused by wetter-than-normal winters, which caused more ice and snow to form, as Newsweek reported.

Gabrielli and his team also reported that samples from the 20th century showed trace amounts of another toxic material: lead.

The lead is likely from its use as a gasoline additive.

"The levels of metals we found were higher than what would exist naturally, but were not high enough to be acutely toxic or poisonous," Gabrielli said. "However, in the future, bioaccumulation may concentrate metals from meltwater at dangerous toxic levels in the tissues of organisms that live in ecosystems below the glacier."

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