Sooty trail of tourism pollution may be melting Antarctica

By Melissa Coade

February 25, 2022

whale tail, tourists on a raft, Atarctica
Tourists travelling to Antarctica in the space of five years has contributed to 83 tonnes of snow in Antarctica melting every summer. (Tony/Adobe)

New research estimates that black carbon from tourists travelling to Antarctica in the space of only five years has contributed to the melting of approximately 83 tonnes of snow in Antarctica every summer for every individual tourist visiting.

Rates of melting snow are accelerating in Antarctica from what scientists believe are being spurred by tourism pollution. The impact is explained by black carbon pollution from fuel-burning darkening the snow and melting it faster.

Dutch scientists from the University of Groningen have calculated that the sooty trail left behind by tourist planes and helicopters, transferring about 53,000 tourists between 2016 and 2020 to the isolated continent at the bottom of the world, means more than 80 tonnes of melted snow can be attributed to each visitor. 

“Fossil fuel and biomass burning produce black carbon that absorbs sunlight and warms the atmosphere. When black carbon settles onto snow, heat is trapped and melting increases,” the researchers explained.

“Human presence in Antarctica has risen substantially in recent decades, but the impact of local black carbon emissions having likely increased following the recent surge in visitors is yet to be quantified.”

Sarah Feron and Raúl Cordero led a team examining black carbon from fossil fuel and biomass combustion at 28 sites across a transection of the continent — 2,000 km from the northern tip of Antarctica (62°S) to the southern Ellsworth Mountains (79°S).

Surveys of areas impacted by black carbon on the Antarctic Peninsula and associated archipelagos (from tourism and research activity) found snow melting and the snowpack shrinking faster than more remote regions. 

The most impacted Antarctic areas around research sites and tourist landing precincts were shrinking by 23 millimetres every summer, the study found. 

The findings were published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.


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