How to Stop the Arctic Ice and Glaciers from Melting … Without Spending a Ton Or Imposing Tyranny

The Real Reason the Arctic and Glaciers Are Melting So Fast

You know how dark cars get hotter than light cars?  And dark clothes absorb heat from the sun more than light clothes?

The same thing may explain why the Arctic ice is melting so fast … and give a very hopeful solution.

The Economist noted last year:

Soot—also known as black carbon—heats up the atmosphere because it absorbs sunlight. Black things do. That is basic physics. But for years the institutions that focus on climate policy have played down the role of pollutants such as black carbon that stay in the atmosphere for a short time, and concentrated on carbon dioxide ….


On January 15th … the most comprehensive study of black carbon yet conducted was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. It concluded that the stuff was the second-most-damaging greenhouse agent after CO2 and about twice as bad for the climate as had been thought until now.


Black carbon is especially damaging to frozen regions, because when soot falls on snow and ice it increases the amount of light and heat they absorb. The new assessment may therefore help explain why the Arctic has been melting faster than anyone had expected.


Whereas CO2is long-lasting and an inevitable by-product of burning fossil fuels, soot drops out of the atmosphere within weeks.

The Christian Science Monitor points out:

Soot remains in the atmosphere for around seven days – a far shorter time than CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for centuries. This means efforts to reduce soot may apply an important brake to warming in the short term with quick results, the researchers suggest.


Initially, calls from some climate scientists during the past decade to focus first on reducing emissions of shorter-lived but powerful warming agents, such as methane or soot, have been met with polite nods and a resumption of heated debates over CO2 emissions. But the increasing recognition of the adverse health effects of soot, as well as the experience from efforts to control soot, are changing that, some researchers say.

Time wrote in 2009:

Unlike CO2, which can hang around in the atmosphere for centuries — CO2 that was emitted by the first coal-powered train is probably still in the air, warming the planet — black carbon has a relatively brief life span. It remains just a few weeks in the air before it falls to earth. That’s key, because if the world could reduce black carbon emissions soon, it could help blunt warming almost instantly. “You can wait a week or a month and the totals in the atmosphere can be significantly different,” says Eric Wilcox, an atmospheric scientist with NASA. Meanwhile, if we were to vastly reduce new CO2 emissions immediately, the billions of tons that already exist in the atmosphere would keep warming the planet for decades.

The Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development agrees:

Because black carbon only remains in the atmosphere for several days to weeks, reducing it can bring about almost immediate mitigation of warming, whereas decreases in temperature lag reductions in CO2 by 1,000 years or more.

The MAIN Cause of Global Warming?

One of the world’s leading crusaders against global warming – Dr. James Hansen – said in 2003:

Soot in snow and ice, by itself in an 1880-2000 simulation, accounted for 25 percent of observed global warming.

In fact – while most sources now list soot as the second most important cause of global warming – it may even be in first place … at least in the near-term.  As the Christian Science Monitor reports:

Given the uncertainties in the estimates, black-carbon soot may even outpace CO2‘s warming effect, according to the 232-page study published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Atmospheres.

Indeed, the ability of soot to melt snow and ice is so well-known that, in the 1970s, scientists – including Obama’s top science adviser, John Holdren– proposed pouring soot over the arctic to melt the ice and so prevent the ice age which scientists feared.

And we’ve previously noted that soot has been discovered to be a leading cause of snow and ice melting in the Arctic and the Himalayas, soot has a much faster influence on temperature than CO2, and that it is relatively easy to reduce soot.

Why is it soot such a powerful ice melter?  Because it is much darker than ice, and so absorbs much more heat from the sun.  Specifically – as anyone who has ever been in snow knows – ice and snow reflect most of the sunlight back up towards the sky.  But dark colors (think of black asphalt) get really hot in the sunlight.

Moreover, soot creates a feedback loop … as the ice and snow melt, the darker colored soil, ocean, or freshwater beneath are revealed.  These – in turn – also absorb much more warmth from the sun.

The Most Important Short-Term Action

Dr. Charles Zender of the University of California at Irvine, told Congress:

Reducing Arctic [black carbon] concentrations sooner rather than later is the most efficient way to mitigate Arctic warming that we know of.

We’ve previously noted:

Top climate scientists say that soot plays a huge role in the melting of snow and ice.  The director of Stanford’s Atmosphere and Energy Program and professor of civil and environmental engineering (Mark Jacobson) believes that soot is the primary cause of melting arctic ice, and says:

Controlling soot may be the only way to significantly slow Arctic warming over the next two decades  ….

Washington’s Blog spoke with Dr. Jacobson – the head of Stanford’s Atmosphere and Energy Program, who has written numerous books and hundreds of scientific papers on climate, and testified before Congress numerous times on soot, climate and related issues – to find out more about the issue.

Initially, Dr. Jacobson explained some of the main sources of soot, such as diesel exhaust, waste burning, forest and open savannah burning to clear land for farming, biofuel burning in developing countries, and jet fuel.

Dr. Jacobson then explained how simply rerouting arctic plane flights could quickly reduce the amount of soot that ends up melting arctic ice.

JACOBSON:  Jet fuel actually has a super-impact because of cross-arctic flight paths, because that’s where you get the closest emissions to the arctic.

WASHINGTON’S BLOG:  Have you done any studies on how much it would cost to reduce emissions from cross-arctic global flights?

JACOBSON:  Yes. We did a study looking at how much it would cost to reroute the flights around the arctic circle.  Rerouting would increase costs by about a hundred million dollars a year in higher fuel and operating costs. But that’s 47 to 55 times less than the global warming costs to the U.S. alone which would occur without doing so.

Black carbon gets removed faster, so there’s a significant reduction to loss of the arctic sea ice.  The cost is about one-fiftieth of the climate costs.

WASHINGTON’S BLOG:  Without tackling things like the burning of hydrocarbons in Asia, open pit fires and things like that, do you think we could really put a dent in the melting of ice if we reroute the flights alone?

JACOBSON:  It would reduce the jet fuel emissions of black carbon by about 83% in the Arctic circle. And that would delay the loss of the Arctic sea ice.

It would also reduce warming worldwide – on a global average – by 2%. But a lot of the impact of global warming is over the Arctic.  There’s much higher warming there than the average.

WASHINGTON’S BLOG:  And is part of the reason that the Arctic is experiencing more ice loss than the Antarctic due to differential distribution of soot?

JACOBSON:  The Arctic is closer to the melting point, so you get feedbacks because – when that ice melts – then you’re uncovering the dark surface below.

The Antarctic is harder to melt, so – even if you raise the temperature – it doesn’t change the albedo [the ability to reflect sunlight].  So there’s not this positive feedback.

WASHINGTON’S BLOG: Part of the debate between global warming believers and global warming skeptics is that Antarctic ice has increased during certain recent years recently.

Is that the explanation … that it doesn’t have the “warming feedback”  you mentioned?

JACOBSON:  There are two things operating. First, when you have global warming, you have a lot more water vapor in the air.  And – in the polar regions – that water precipitates out as ice, if you’re at freezing temperatures.   So if you’re not melting the ice, then you expect an accumulation with global warming.

You’d normally get an accumulation of ice at the North Pole.  But since there’s a lot of melting there (because it’s closer to the melting point than the Antarctic), and the ice is very thin – it’s only one to three meters thick – compared to the Antarctic glaciers that are three kilometers thick.

So you’ve got this accumulation at both poles, but the accumulation in the Arctic is melting. Because you’re evaporating all this water from the oceans, that’s got to go somewhere, and once you get to subfreezing temperatures, it’s going to deposit it as ice or snow at the Antarctic.

[Indeed, the mean summer temperature at the North Pole is right at the melting point (32 degrees Fahrenheit).  In sharp contrast, the mean summer temperature at the South Pole is negative 18 degrees Fahrenheit. So any extra temperature in the Arctic could melt a whole lot of ice during the summer; but you’d need almost 50 degree higher summer temperatures in the Antarctic to get up to the melting point.]

After our interview, I found a good 2012 New York Times report on Jacobson’s research:

Air traffic is the biggest source of pollution in the Arctic. Ever since cross-polar flights became commonplace in the late 1990s, flights crossing the Arctic Circle have risen steadily, surpassing 50,000 in 2010.

While cross-polar flights account for only a tiny percent of total global emissions from aviation, the standard cruising altitude for commercial planes in the Arctic is the stratosphere, an extremely stable layer of the atmosphere. Black carbon and other emissions get trapped in this layer and as a result remain in the atmosphere longer, causing far more damage than emissions from flights at lower latitudes, scientists say.

But with some creative detours, airlines can buy a little more time for Arctic sea ice, a new study suggests.

Writing in the journal Climatic Change, Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, and other researchers report that rerouting planes around the Arctic Circle could help delay the advent of a tipping point after which the ice would eventually disappear.

The research team gathered emissions data from 40,399 cross-polar flights in 2006 and used computer simulations to compare what would happen over the next 22 years if those flights skirted the Arctic rather than following their current routes.

Good News: We Can Reduce Soot Without Selling Our Souls

The Economist notes:

Stop putting it there and it will rapidly go away—a potentially easy win.That win is made easier still by the fact that about 70% of emissions in Europe and the Americas come from diesel engines. Better exhausts, to trap carbon particles before they are emitted, and the scrapping of old, highly polluting vehicles could make an immediate impact. In other countries the problem is more often inefficient stoves and dirty fuel—again, things that are easy to deal with, at least in principle.

Reducing soot will be cheaper than the “decarbonation” which many policy-makers have proposed. And it would increase the health of millions of people worldwide.

A modest amount of money could replace quite a few of these with these … drastically reducing the amount of soot in the atmosphere.

The New York Times also notes the cost-effectiveness of reducing soot:

Decreasing black carbon emissions would be a relatively cheap way to significantly rein in global warming — especially in the short term, climate experts say …

The Monitor provides more good news:

“There are clear options” to cut soot emissions, Ramanathan says.

In California, for instance, black-carbon soot emissions fell by half between 1990 to 2008 in response to tighter air-quality regulations affecting diesel emissions, according to a study Ramanathan and colleagues from Scripps and Argonne National Laboratory published in early 2011.

The decline occurred even as “diesel consumption has increased significantly,” he adds. The soot pollution “has come down to almost nothing” statewide.

The study on global black-carbon soot released Tuesday notes that focusing initially on diesel sources “appears to offer the most confidence in reducing near-term” warming.

Another opportunity lies in supplying cook stoves that burn biofuels like wood or dung more efficiently, Ramanathan adds.

Moreover – while Noam Chomsky and James Lovelock (environmentalist and creator of the “Gaia hypothesis”) have both said that they would be okay with a fascist approach to tackling global warming – we don’t need to go fascist to reduce soot.

Indeed, University of California at San Diego researchers point out that climate issues can more effectively be tackled on the local level:

Action on soot and ozone can transform the politics of climate change because controlling these pollutants doesn’t just benefit the climate.  It also delivers tangible local benefits.  Even the governments that are skittish about spending money for global benefits can see real local advantages in this new strategy.”

Similarly, the Economist writes:

Dealing with them is also cheaper than cutting CO2 emissions and does not need global agreement, because the local benefits would be the main point, so no one could free-ride on the emission-cutting efforts of others. Instead, the good of the climate would be free-riding on local self-interest.

In other words, reducing soot in our communities will improve our standard of living (think smog in Beijing) and prevent millions of deaths from lung disease every year.

Ironically, however, a growing international consensus is forming on soot. As UC San Diego notes:

In February, six countries (including the United States) formed a coalition devoted to promote practical changes that could control emissions of global warming agents such as soot and ozone.

In other words, the same approach which can work on the local level also has the best chance to build momentum internationally.

Postscript for global warming skeptics:  This essay is for people who are worried about Arctic ice melting.  If you’re not, you’re of course welcome to (1) skip this essay or (2) read it as an attempt to compromise with those who believe in global warming, because the actions recommended here are much less harmful than most of the hairbrain “fixes” being proposed by global warming believers (and see this) … such as nuclear power, geoengineering, cap-and-trade, or the imposition of fascism in order to combat climate change.

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  • jadan

    We know very little about our planet and are therefore not competent to “engineer” solutions to problems we don’t understand. We should stick to what we do know and work from there. We know that our species is driving other species into extinction at an appalling rate through habitat destruction and pollution. We are even killing off bacterial and microbial life. Fallen trees in forests near Chernobyl do not decay! If we want to “save” our planet from ourselves, we should immediately start a global program to protect other species and permit them to thrive. We can’t even control our own numbers! What the hell are we talking about soot for?

  • A draft of the IPCC final report soon to be released (3/31/14) is commented on at Reuters.

  • colinjames71

    I’m with jadan, although re-routing planes would actually be un-engineering I suppose. The fact is climate science is not settled science, and there are key factors not taken into account- current geo-engineering efforts (what the hell are they spraying, and HAARP, possibly) which are unknowable, and electrical input from the earth-sun connection. See Thunderbolts Project on YouTube and the Suspicious Observers website for the latter. This article actually demonstrates how much we have to learn. My biggest issue is that so little attention is paid to the million other reasons to get off fossil fuels, making the debate over global warming a polarizing, false dilemma-inducing debate, leading people to either be totally for our against fossil fuels. Ocean acidification, pollution, habitat loss, and the corrosive effects of oil and gas on geopolitics barely get a mention in the debate over our energy future. Not to mention fracking and deepwater offshore drilling and the risks those methods pose as the easy oil gets scarcer and scarcer.

    A note to jadan, if you’re concerned about extinctions, than you should be concerned about the ice, and therefore, assuming the paper is accurate, in favor of reducing soot in the Arctic. Seems a little contractory to me your casual dismissal of this issue after bringing up species loss and the need to protect against that very thing. Ice is critical habitat.

    • jadan

      Dr Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, rejects the greenhouse hypoth. 500,000 years ago, the atmosphere had 10x more CO2 and the earth was subtropical, with no ice at the poles, and 450,000 years ago the atmosphere was the same 10x present concentrations and the earth was in an ice age. The greenhouse warming idea does not seem to fit the facts. Over spans of geologic time there seems to be warming & cooling, and it may be we are in a warming trend. I don’t know. There exist ancient maps of the poles as ice free land. What do we know about the history of our planet? Precious little. But there is such a thing as common courtesy, whether the earth is warming or cooling: what right have we to force other species into extinction in wanton disregard for their right to life? Our life has no greater claim simply because we presume ourselves to be smarter. The planet has a life of its own, a larger life of which we are a part. How dare we presume to imagine we can chart its course? We’re just not that smart. Species blink on and off and we don’t really know why. Maybe it’s our time to get a taste of what we serve up to our hapless animal fellow travelers?

  • Undecider

    No amount of money is going to prevent the melting of Arctic ice and glaciers (northern hemisphere) due to the tilting of the Earth’s northern hemisphere towards the Sun this summer.

    This whole charade is a joke on the unthinking as a means to tax the population to fund a global government which is designed to exterminate and control the populations.

  • cettel

    This is the most constructive commentary
    regarding the problem of global warming (which is the
    biggest threat to the future of all
    , especially long-term
    ) that I have yet encountered.

  • your name.

    George…. PATHETIC ‘POSTSCRIPT’…! All of these people you interviewed believe in global warming!!
    Ur piece at zerohedge is pathetic redmeat for the brownshirt trolls that ruined that place…
    Also, forcing people to use soot free stoves can be called a big scary word like FASCISM, or it could be called… common sense.
    Nice quotes from the fucking newyork times and the motherfucking economist…?! Just git ur quotes from exxon next time… fool.

  • James

    This – rather than the stupid concept of “man made global warming” might actually have some credence to it.

    There is something that has been melting arctic ice, while antarctic ice (where 85-90% of the world’s ice is) has been increasing. Something is causing the arctic melt.

    And this soot issue sounds plausible – however i’d have to see some science to back up the theory. There is no science in the article, only conjecture.

    However if true this is very good news. First, it sounds like the warmers are getting off their butts and trying to figure out what’s really causing the ice to melt, now that global warming is no more.

    Second, There are not many penalties for melting Arctic ice. It’s floating, so the sea level does not rise or fall when arctic ice melts (as opposed to Antarctic, which is land-based). There’s not that much of it, so it will return relatively quickly. There are not really any animal populations that live in the Arctic.

    I’d suggest that “do nothing” is an option if this is the cause. There are actually some benefits when the Arctic ice melts; shipping lanes open up; More water is available for the water cycle; Fewer people will decide to visit one of the last pristine areas of the globe; etc..

  • boueeny

    Because it is much darker than ice, and so absorbs much more heat from the sun. Specifically – as anyone who has ever been in snow knows – ice and snow reflect most of the sunlight back up towards the sky.
    i agree that… also hope it would be help for u

  • Me

    As with the CO2 argument, on the surface this sounds plausible. But I could come up with a similarly-plausible case for just about anything in the world to “contribute to” just about anything else. It’s a bit fishy that, now that public opinion is turning against the CO2 argument, another theory comes up that basically has all of the same culprits (power plants especially coal, airline travel, automobile exhaust, deforestation) and basically the same solutions (give governments more control over all of these things).

    And frankly, parts of this just didn’t ring true at all, though I haven’t had time to think about it too hard. Like:
    “While cross-polar flights account for only a tiny percent of total global emissions from aviation, the standard cruising altitude for commercial planes in the Arctic is the stratosphere, an extremely stable layer of the atmosphere. Black carbon and other emissions get trapped in this layer and as a result remain in the atmosphere longer, causing far more damage than emissions from flights at lower latitudes, scientists say.”
    The whole theory of snow/ice melting faster when covered by soot requires contact between the heat-absorbing soot and the snow/ice. If most of the aviation-related black carbon is trapped in the stratosphere, it would tend to block sunlight from hitting the ice, helping the ice to stay frozen. The soot would still absorb the sunlight’s energy and warm somewhat, but that would happen in the stratosphere (above 80% of the atmosphere). Most of that extra heat would radiate back into space.

  • Glaciationmaps

    Dana Wigington, a greatly concerned and educated SOLAR scientist, geoengineeringwatch dot org explains how and why the massive worldwide geoengineering is causing a Venus effect while pushing a small ice age in the U.S. and elsewhere. iceagenow/info .com has stats on former ice ages and glaciation maps. The little people seem to have little to no power over the insane devils running the show, but aircrap dot org shows the country’s people suing their Govs over it etc,