Coal Soot From Europe's Industrial Revolution Found in the Himalayas
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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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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