The first-ever study of air trapped in the deep snowpack of Greenland has yielded surprising results. Current computer models had predicted that levels of carbon monoxide locked into the snowpack would be higher than those recorded in the 1950s, yet it appears that the opposite is true.

A recent paper published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics has shown that CO levels rose slightly from 1950 until the 1970s, then declined strongly to present-day values. These findings contradict computer models that had calculated a 40 percent overall increase in CO levels over the same period.

A team of scientists led by Vasilii Petrenko, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, extracted samples of air from the snowpacks at different depths, with those from the deeper sections corresponding to older time frames. It was then possible to create a history of carbon monoxide patterns in the Arctic over the past 60 years, with surprising results.

Despite a global increase in the amount of vehicles being driven since, since the 1970s levels of CO appear to have declined. Pentrenko attributes this fact to improvements in combustion technology and the introduction of catalytic converters in motor engines, which seem to have reduced CO levels despite an increase in the use of fossil fuels. Petrenko 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.

Though it is not classed as a ‘greenhouse gas’ like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion that can be deadly in high concentrations. It plays an indirect role in global warming as it reacts with hydroxyl molecules (OH) and consequently reduces levels of OH in the atmosphere . As OH helps to reduce the amount of important atmospheric greenhouse gases, such as methane, this means that high concentrations of CO in the atmosphere can indirectly contribute to global warming. As computer models have failed to provide an accurate forecast, studies such as Petrenko’s would appear to be necessary to monitor levels of this potentially dangerous gas and assess its role in global warming.

"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. "It seems that no one thought to study carbon monoxide in the Greenland snowpack before our work."
Petrenko hopes to get the necessary funding to take readings from deeper in the Greenland ice, ideally obtaining samples from before the Industrial Revolution, in order to provide a more comprehensive overview of the effect of industry on CO levels.

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