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Keywords:

  • Black carbon;
  • snow reflectance;
  • snow albedo feedback

[1] We apply our Snow, Ice, and Aerosol Radiative (SNICAR) model, coupled to a general circulation model with prognostic carbon aerosol transport, to improve understanding of climate forcing and response from black carbon (BC) in snow. Building on two previous studies, we account for interannually varying biomass burning BC emissions, snow aging, and aerosol scavenging by snow meltwater. We assess uncertainty in forcing estimates from these factors, as well as BC optical properties and snow cover fraction. BC emissions are the largest source of uncertainty, followed by snow aging. The rate of snow aging determines snowpack effective radius (re), which directly controls snow reflectance and the magnitude of albedo change caused by BC. For a reasonable re range, reflectance reduction from BC varies threefold. Inefficient meltwater scavenging keeps hydrophobic impurities near the surface during melt and enhances forcing. Applying biomass burning BC emission inventories for a strong (1998) and weak (2001) boreal fire year, we estimate global annual mean BC/snow surface radiative forcing from all sources (fossil fuel, biofuel, and biomass burning) of +0.054 (0.007–0.13) and +0.049 (0.007–0.12) W m−2, respectively. Snow forcing from only fossil fuel + biofuel sources is +0.043 W m−2 (forcing from only fossil fuels is +0.033 W m−2), suggesting that the anthropogenic contribution to total forcing is at least 80%. The 1998 global land and sea-ice snowpack absorbed 0.60 and 0.23 W m−2, respectively, because of direct BC/snow forcing. The forcing is maximum coincidentally with snowmelt onset, triggering strong snow-albedo feedback in local springtime. Consequently, the “efficacy” of BC/snow forcing is more than three times greater than forcing by CO2. The 1998 and 2001 land snowmelt rates north of 50°N are 28% and 19% greater in the month preceding maximum melt of control simulations without BC in snow. With climate feedbacks, global annual mean 2-meter air temperature warms 0.15 and 0.10°C, when BC is included in snow, whereas annual arctic warming is 1.61 and 0.50°C. Stronger high-latitude climate response in 1998 than 2001 is at least partially caused by boreal fires, which account for nearly all of the 35% biomass burning contribution to 1998 arctic forcing. Efficacy was anomalously large in this experiment, however, and more research is required to elucidate the role of boreal fires, which we suggest have maximum arctic BC/snow forcing potential during April–June. Model BC concentrations in snow agree reasonably well (r = 0.78) with a set of 23 observations from various locations, spanning nearly 4 orders of magnitude. We predict concentrations in excess of 1000 ng g−1 for snow in northeast China, enough to lower snow albedo by more than 0.13. The greatest instantaneous forcing is over the Tibetan Plateau, exceeding 20 W m−2 in some places during spring. These results indicate that snow darkening is an important component of carbon aerosol climate forcing.