Pollution and Polar Ice Caps
Name: Laura D.
What does the affect of pollution have on the polar ice caps water cycle?
The effects are potentially numerous and are dependent on the types of pollutants that are being considered.
Take for instance, the well known Arctic haze that is composed of aerosols and other pollutants. Although most aerosols tend to reflect solar radiation back to space, either themselves or by enhanced cloud formation, thereby causing cooling (which could increase the mass of the north pole ice cap), the bulk of the pollution in the Arctic seems to be greenhouse gases that have warmed the Arctic, thereby possibly causing reduced precipitation and thereby thinning of the ice cap.
Thinning of the Arctic ice cap has been reported, but it is not clear whether this is related to the increase in pollution during the past few decades or whether it is caused by natural climate cycles that allow the ice to thin and thicken alternately over long periods of time.
Clearly, thinning or thickening of the ice cap causes or is caused by changes in air temperature, solar insolation, precipitation, and atmospheric circulations, the latter of which can be related to or caused by changes in oceanic circulations and climate variability.
Sorting out whether natural climate variations or pollution derived variations are causing the apparent observed changes in Arctic climate is difficult.
The ozone thinning that has occurred over Antarctica has clearly been caused by man-made pollution (chlorofluorocarbons). However, it has not had a dramatic effect on the climate or ice of the Antarctic. Natural processes may have caused the large
break offs of ice sheet during the past couple of years, but that is not even very clear.
David R. Cook
Atmospheric Research Section
Environmental Research Division
Argonne National Laboratory
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Update: June 2012