Using Black Carbon to Understand Past and Future Climate


We all know the immediate impacts of wildfires: smoky skies and scorched landscapes. But evidence from fires also becomes forever recorded in polar ice! Black carbon emissions—commonly known as soot—can be found in Antarctic ice cores, providing clues about ancient climate conditions. 

Researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) recently discovered the longest black carbon ice core record in known existence, and the discovery has important implications for modern day climate science predictions. By comparing the levels of black carbon in the ice core with other historical records, the DRI team identified a period of drought and increased fire season length in South America that occurred in the mid-Holocene period (14 to 2.5 thousand years ago). 

Scientists can use black carbon analysis to paint a picture of climate conditions before significant human-caused changes to climate, and to understand how natural phenomena, like fires, affects black carbon emissions. 

“Knowing what climate-fire relationships were like in the past will help scientists make more accurate climate models because they can account for black carbon contributions from wildfires in addition to those from human sources,” says Joe McConnell, a study co-author. 

Evidence shows that human activity since the Industrial Revolution has dramatically increased black carbon emissions and in turn contributes to climate change. Read more about the research and download the full report from the Desert Research Institute

Photo credit: Desert Research Institute