First-time measurements in Greenland snowpack show a drop in atmospheric co since 1950s

September 17, 2013
Isua Supracrustal Belt Isua, south-west Greenland. Credit: University of Washington.

A first-ever study of air trapped in the deep snowpack of Greenland shows that atmospheric levels of carbon monoxide (CO) in the 1950s were actually slightly higher than what we have today. This is a surprise because current computer models predict much higher CO concentrations over Greenland today than in 1950. Now it appears the opposite is in fact true.

In a paper recently published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vasilii Petrenko, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, concluded that CO levels rose slightly from 1950 until the 1970s, then declined strongly to present-day values. This finding contradicts computer models that had calculated a 40 percent overall increase in CO levels over the same period.

"The CO decline coincides with improvements in combustion technology, in particular the introduction of in automobiles," said Petrenko. "CO emissions were declining even as fossil fuel use was increasing."

Carbon monoxide, a of combustion that can be deadly in high concentrations, exists in the atmosphere at very low levels. While not a like carbon dioxide, it plays an important role in atmospheric chemistry and an indirect role in global warming.

Petrenko and his team began their research project by extracting air from the snowpack at various depths, with samples taken from deeper in the snowpack corresponding to older time frames. After analyzing the samples, they created a CO history for the Arctic over the last 60 years, which shows that levels have been declining since the 1970s, despite a global increase in the number of vehicles being driven.

"It seems that no one thought to study in the Greenland snowpack before our work," said Petrenko. "Also, the difficulty of taking the samples and making measurements may have discouraged some researchers."

Carbon monoxide readily reacts with hydroxyl molecules (OH), thereby reducing the levels of OH in the atmosphere. The problem is that OH helps to reduce the amount of important atmospheric greenhouse gases—such as methane. This means that high concentrations of CO indirectly contribute to global warming.

Petrenko said it's possible that improvements in combustion technology may have had an even stronger impact than is immediately apparent from his research data. He 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.

"In order for computer models to get things right, it's important to have accurate historical records," said Petrenko. "Until now, we haven't had enough reliable data on carbon monoxide concentrations. This work helps to fill that gap."

Petrenko hopes to get the necessary funding to take readings from deeper in the Greenland ice in order to extend the record of CO levels to before the Industrial Revolution.

Explore further: Oil industry and household stoves speed Arctic thaw

Related Stories

Oil industry and household stoves speed Arctic thaw

September 10, 2013

( —The new study, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by researchers at IIASA and in Norway, Finland, and Russia, finds that gas flaring from oil extraction in the Arctic accounts for 42% ...

Algae fossils shed light on adaptation to global warming

September 4, 2013

When thinking about global warming, one thing usually comes to mind: man-made CO2 emissions. Industrialisation single-handedly caused the rise of Earth's surface temperature, leading to the likes of shrinking glaciers, damaged ...

Recommended for you

Carbon coating gives biochar its garden-greening power

October 20, 2017

For more than 100 years, biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance made from oxygen-deprived plant or other organic matter, has both delighted and puzzled scientists. As a soil additive, biochar can store carbon and ...

Cool roofs have water saving benefits too

October 20, 2017

The energy and climate benefits of cool roofs have been well established: By reflecting rather than absorbing the sun's energy, light-colored roofs keep buildings, cities, and even the entire planet cooler. Now a new study ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (23) Sep 17, 2013
Is it possible that the computer models are not quite as accurate as we are being told? Oh, my!
1.5 / 5 (22) Sep 17, 2013
What is the alarmists excuse for this level of incompetence?
4.3 / 5 (7) Sep 17, 2013
What is the alarmists excuse for this level of incompetence?

Oh, right, "incompetence" runs to time travel and all data in an emerging science is expected to be at hand from the off. Even the minor contributors to AGW.

But actually this isn't new ......the paper was done in 2011 and published in May last year - I expect it's results are now incorporated within GCM's.

3.3 / 5 (14) Sep 17, 2013
Oh dear. They do come out early, don't they?

Carbon MONoxide, guys. MONoxide.
1 / 5 (17) Sep 23, 2013
One wonders what evidence it would actually take to falsify AGW in the minds of its adherents. For most it's an article of religious faith, so I guess the most common answer would be something like "f**k off, evil capitalist denier troll!!!"
2.8 / 5 (13) Sep 23, 2013
Haha denialist losers don't know the difference between CO and CO2. It's no wonder they don't understand science.
1 / 5 (15) Sep 27, 2013
Haha denialist losers don't know the difference between CO and CO2. It's no wonder they don't understand science.

Well, it's obvious you suffered brain damage from CO.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.