Quirks & Quarks

Will soot and smoke from the Australian wildfires make their way to the Antarctic?

Soot and smoke do settle on glaciers, and can increase their melt rate

Soot and smoke do settle on glaciers, and can increase their melt rate

Carmelised snow caused by soot from Australian wildfires is seen near Franz Josef glacier in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand, January 1, 2020 Social media/via REUTERS (Social media/via REUTERS )

Today's question comes to us from Derek Wilson in Port Moody, British Columbia. He asks: Will smoke and sooty deposits from the Australian wildfires make their way to Antarctica? And what impact will that have in snow and ice?

Martin Sharp, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta specializes in glaciers and how they change. He says there is some evidence to suggest that smoke from the Australian wildfires did reach some coastal areas of Antarctica.

But it is very clear that smoke and sooty deposits from the fires reached New Zealand and turned some of the glaciers and orangy-brown colour.  By making the glaciers darker, soot results in them absorbing more solar radiation. This can in turn cause them to melt more rapidly.

However, this effect varies depending on elevation. At higher elevation where there is snow all year round, the surface will darken and melt faster. At lower elevations, where glacial ice is exposed in the summer, there are already deposits of dust from surrounding areas, as well as microbes that live on the surface, so the additional impact of soot on melting may not be very great. 

Written and produced by Mark Crawley



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