Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Greenland ice sheet carries evidence of increased atmospheric acidity

Date:
December 7, 2012
Source:
University of Washington
Summary:
Studies have shown decreasing levels of the isotope nitrogen-15 in core samples from Greenland ice starting around the time of the Industrial Revolution. New research suggests the decline corresponds to increased acidity in the atmosphere.

Ice core data show concentrations of nitrate (top line), hydrogen ions (middle line) and nitrogen-15 (bottom line) from 1772 through 2006.
Credit: Lei Geng/University of Washington

Research has shown a decrease in levels of the isotope nitrogen-15 in core samples from Greenland ice starting around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The decrease has been attributed to a corresponding increase in nitrates associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

However, new University of Washington research suggests that the decline in nitrogen-15 is more directly related to increased acidity in the atmosphere.

The increased acidity can be traced to sulfur dioxide, which in the atmosphere is transformed to sulfuric acid, said Lei Geng, a UW research associate in atmospheric sciences. Following the Industrial Revolution, sulfur dioxide emissions increased steadily because of coal burning.

"It changes the chemical properties of the lower troposphere, where we live, and that can have a lot of consequences," Geng said. He presented his findings on Dec. 7 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The gradual buildup of acidity in the atmosphere over a century got a boost around 1950 with a sharp increase in nitrogen-oxygen compounds, referred to as NOx, mainly produced in high-temperature combustion such as occurs in coal-fired power plants and motor vehicle engines. NOx is easily converted to nitric acid in the atmosphere, further increasing the acidity.

NOx carries a chemical signature -- the abundance of nitrogen-15, one of two nitrogen isotopes -- which changes depending on the source. That means it is possible to distinguish NOx that came from a forest fire from NOx produced as a result of lightning, soil emissions, car exhaust and power plant emissions. The level of nitrogen-15 can be measured in nitrates that formed from NOx and were deposited in ice sheets such as those in Greenland.

Current evidence indicates NOx from coal-fired power plant and motor vehicle emissions likely carries more nitrogen-15 than NOx produced by natural sources, so nitrogen-15 levels in deposited nitrate could be expected to go up. However, those levels actually went down in the late 1800s, following the Industrial Revolution, Geng said. That's because increasing sulfuric acid levels in the atmosphere triggered chemical and physical processes that allowed less nitrogen-15 to remain in vaporized nitrate, which can be carried to remote places such as Greenland.

The growing acidity in the atmosphere was occurring decades before acid rain was recognized as a threat, particularly in industrial areas of North America.

Core samples from Greenland ice sheets reflect a correlation between nitrogen-15 levels and atmospheric acidity, Geng said. Data he studied came primarily from a core that is part of combined research between UW and South Dakota State University, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Geng noted that the core reflects a decline in signals for both NOx and sulfur dioxide emissions in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. The signals increased again following the Depression until the early 1970s, when Western nations experienced an economic downturn and an oil shortage. Shortly after that, the Clean Air Act in the United States began to have an impact on vehicle and power plant emissions.

"We've seen a huge drop in sulfate concentrations since the late 1970s," Geng said. "By 2005, concentrations had dropped to levels similar to the late 1800s."

Ice core data show nitrate levels have stabilized during that time, he said, because while emission levels from individual vehicles might have decreased substantially, the number of vehicles has increased significantly.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Washington. The original article was written by Vince Stricherz. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Washington. "Greenland ice sheet carries evidence of increased atmospheric acidity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 December 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121207132759.htm>.
University of Washington. (2012, December 7). Greenland ice sheet carries evidence of increased atmospheric acidity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121207132759.htm
University of Washington. "Greenland ice sheet carries evidence of increased atmospheric acidity." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121207132759.htm (accessed August 22, 2014).

Share This




More Earth & Climate News

Friday, August 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Microbrewery Chooses Special Can for Its Beer

Microbrewery Chooses Special Can for Its Beer

AP (Aug. 22, 2014) — Aluminum giant, Novelis, has partnered with Red Hare Brewing Company to introduce the first certified high-content recycled beverage can. (Aug. 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Farm Resurgence Grows With Younger Crowd

Farm Resurgence Grows With Younger Crowd

AP (Aug. 22, 2014) — New England farms are seeing a surge in younger farm hands as the 'buy local' food movement grows across the country. (Aug. 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
California Drought Stings Honeybees, Beekeepers

California Drought Stings Honeybees, Beekeepers

AP (Aug. 21, 2014) — California's record drought is hurting honey supplies and raising prices for consumers. The lack of rainfall means fewer crops and wildflowers that provide the nectar bees need to make honey. (Aug. 21) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Thousands Of Species Found In Lake Under Antarctic Ice

Thousands Of Species Found In Lake Under Antarctic Ice

Newsy (Aug. 20, 2014) — A U.S. team found nearly 4,000 species in a subglacial lake that hasn't seen sunlight in millennia, showing life can thrive even under the ice. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins