Global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is heating up the North Pole and South Pole, causing the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to melt. The rapidly retreating glaciers could have far-reaching consequences for the planet, as they threaten to raise sea levels, change global ocean circulation patterns and alter global atmospheric circulation patterns. But there is another worrisome trend related to climate change that is found in the so-called “Third Pole” located in Central Asia. The snow-covered Himalaya-Hindu-Kush mountains and the Tibetan Plateau contain the largest ice mass on the planet outside of the polar regions and they are also experiencing dramatic melt, threatening the water supply for more than a billion people.
A new study published in the journal Nature Communications finds that “combustion-derived black carbon (BC) aerosols” are accelerating glacier melting. Researchers found evidence thath both the burning of fossil fuels and the burning of biomass contributed to air pollution reaching the Third Pole. The black carbon particulate matter floating in the atmosphere absorbs sunlight, causing temporary regional warming, and when black carbon accumulates on the glacial surface it can darken the surface, causing more sunlight absorption and a faster melt rate.
The biomass can come from different sources – including yak dung combustion for daily cooking and heating. Researchers found that in the Himalayas there was an about even split between fossil fuels burning and biomass burning contributing to the black carbon. In the northern part of the Tibetan Plateau, most of the black carbon came from fossil fuel burning in China. However, in the inner, central part of the plateau, about two thirds of the black carbon came from biomass burning, a finding that one of the study’s authors, Sichang Kang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, told The Washington Post was “surprising.”
Kang relayed to the Post that the results of the study could be valuable for policymakers to take action not just to reduce fossil fuels emissions but also to mitigate biomass burning. According to Kang, governments could invest in making cooking and heating more efficient and increase the availability of cleaner energy sources.
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