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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Oct 24;114(43):11321-11326. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1710239114. Epub 2017 Oct 9.

Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy.

Author information

1
Committee on Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637; dubaysg@uchicago.edu cfuldner@uchicago.edu.
2
Life Sciences Section, Integrative Research Center, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL 60605.
3
Department of Art History, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637 dubaysg@uchicago.edu cfuldner@uchicago.edu.

Abstract

Atmospheric black carbon has long been recognized as a public health and environmental concern. More recently, black carbon has been identified as a major, ongoing contributor to anthropogenic climate change, thus making historical emission inventories of black carbon an essential tool for assessing past climate sensitivity and modeling future climate scenarios. Current estimates of black carbon emissions for the early industrial era have high uncertainty, however, because direct environmental sampling is sparse before the mid-1950s. Using photometric reflectance data of >1,300 bird specimens drawn from natural history collections, we track relative ambient concentrations of atmospheric black carbon between 1880 and 2015 within the US Manufacturing Belt, a region historically reliant on coal and dense with industry. Our data show that black carbon levels within the region peaked during the first decade of the 20th century. Following this peak, black carbon levels were positively correlated with coal consumption through midcentury, after which they decoupled, with black carbon concentrations declining as consumption continued to rise. The precipitous drop in atmospheric black carbon at midcentury reflects policies promoting burning efficiency and fuel transitions rather than regulating emissions alone. Our findings suggest that current emission inventories based on predictive modeling underestimate levels of atmospheric black carbon for the early industrial era, suggesting that the contribution of black carbon to past climate forcing may also be underestimated. These findings build toward a spatially dynamic emission inventory of black carbon based on direct environmental sampling.

KEYWORDS:

aerosols; air pollution; climate change; natural history; soot

PMID:
29073051
PMCID:
PMC5664526
DOI:
10.1073/pnas.1710239114
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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