Study of CO levels in Greenland snowpack finds sharp decline since 1970s

The first-ever study of air trapped in the deep snowpack of Greenland has yielded surprising results. Current computer models had predicted that levels of carbon monoxide locked into the snowpack would be higher than those recorded in the 1950s, yet it appears that the opposite is true.

Sunrise over a Greenland ice pack.  / Ben Hattenbach
Sunrise over a Greenland ice pack. / Ben Hattenbach

A recent paper published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics has shown that CO levels rose slightly from 1950 until the 1970s, then declined strongly to present-day values. These findings contradict computer models that had calculated a 40 percent overall increase in CO levels over the same period.

A team of scientists led by Vasilii Petrenko, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, extracted samples of air from the snowpacks at different depths, with those from the deeper sections corresponding to older time frames. It was then possible to create a history of carbon monoxide patterns in the Arctic over the past 60 years, with surprising results.

Despite a global increase in the amount of vehicles being driven since, since the 1970s levels of CO appear to have declined. Pentrenko attributes this fact to improvements in combustion technology and the introduction of catalytic converters in motor engines, which seem to have reduced CO levels despite an increase in the use of fossil fuels. Petrenko points out that burning firewood, a predominant cooking fuel in south Asia, is a major source of carbon monoxide. Improvements in combustion technology may have masked an increase in CO from cooking brought on by a rise in that region’s population.


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