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Climate: Not all gases related to fossil fuel combustion are rising in lockstep

A new study of the Greenland snowpack reached surprising conclusions about concentrations of carbon monoxide.

A new study of the Greenland snowpack reached surprising conclusions about concentrations of carbon monoxide.

 

FRISCO — Atmospheric carbon dioxide may be rising inexorably, but not all gases related to combustion of fossil fuels are increasing. A new study of the Greenland snowpack shows that carbon monoxide levels were higher in 1950 than those measured today.

Lead researcher, Vasilii Petrenko, an assistant professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Rochester, said the findings were surprising because computer models predicted CO related to fossil fuel burning.would be about 40 percent higher now than 60 years ago.

Based on the study, Petrenko concluded that CO levels rose slightly from 1950 until the 1970s, then declined strongly to present-day values.

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

Carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion that can be deadly in high concentrations, exists in the atmosphere at very low levels. While not a greenhouse gas 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 carbon monoxide 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.

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