Washington: A NASA-led team of scientists has found proof that soot from a rapidly industrializing Europe caused the abrupt retreat of mountain glaciers in the European Alps that began in the 1860s, a period often believed as the end of the Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age , loosely defined as a cooler period between the 14th and 19th centuries, was marked by an expansion of mountain glaciers and a drop in temperatures in Europe of nearly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius).
But glacier records show that between 1860 and 1930, while temperatures continued to drop, large valley glaciers in the Alps abruptly retreated by an average of nearly 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) to lengths not seen in the previous few hundred years. Glaciologists and climatologists have struggled to reconcile this apparent conflict between climate and glacier records.
To help the scientists understand what was driving the glacier retreat, Painter and his colleagues turned to history. The researchers studied data from ice cores drilled from high up on several European mountain glaciers to determine how much black carbon was in the atmosphere and snow when the Alps glaciers began to retreat.
Using the levels of carbon particles trapped in the ice core layers, and taking into consideration modern observations of how pollutants are distributed in the Alps, they were able to estimate how much black carbon was deposited on glacial surfaces at lower elevations, where levels of black carbon tend to be highest.
The team then ran computer models of glacier behaviour, starting with recorded weather conditions and adding the impact of the lower-elevation pollution.
When this impact was included, the simulated glacier mass loss and timing finally were consistent with the historic record of glacial retreat, despite the cooling temperatures at that time.
The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.