Scientists discover black carbon on Mendenhall Glacier. Could it play a role in glacial melt?

Researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast discovered a chemical on the Mendenhall Glacier which is thought to accelerate glacial melt: black carbon.

In samples taken from the glacier in mid-April and July, UAS professors Sonia Nagorski, Eran Hood and Jason Fellman found black carbon, a byproduct of combustion linked with increased glacial melt.

“Our initial thought was that we would find higher concentrations of black carbon near the Mendenhall Glacier, seeing that it’s closer to town, in comparison to the Gilkey Glacier further away, about 30 miles northeast of the Mendenhall,” Fellman said in a Thursday press release.

Black carbon, a major component of soot, has what scientists call a “high solar absorbency” which allows it to heat up surrounding ice. Sources of black carbon include vehicles, helicopters, cruise ships and wood burning stoves.

The researchers conducted the study in part to investigate whether levels of black carbon are higher during the summer season, when hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers visit the Mendenhall Glacier — usually on tour buses from downtown.

“No direct sources are certain,” Hood stated in Thursday’s press release. “We don’t want to point fingers and say it’s coming from the cruise ships or another source. We simply don’t know and that is why we are doing this study on the icefield, to collect data on the levels of black carbon that could be coming from Juneau or elsewhere.”

As fossil fuels are burned, tiny particles of black carbon float in the atmosphere and settle in places like the Mendenhall Glacier. According to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, black carbon has a warming impact on climate 460-1500 times stronger than CO2.

The UAS scientists will present the results of their work at the American Geophysical Union research conference in December. In 2017, Juneau residents will have a chance to hear about the research at one of the upcoming “Fireside Chats” hosted by the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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