Research Spotlight: Sulfate isotopes explain past Antarctic atmospheric conditions


  • Mohi Kumar,

  • Ernie Tretkoff


The past 230 years have seen great changes in atmospheric conditions in the Northern Hemisphere, due to pollutants released from biomass and coal burning as societies became industrialized and the fossil fuel burning that began to dominate energy consumption at the turn of the twentieth century. The changes from low pollution levels to biomass burning to fossil fuel burning are recorded in Greenland ice cores—the burning of different fuels releases chemical species that influence the oxidation capacity (or reactivity) of the atmosphere. The oxidation capacity of the atmosphere influences atmospheric concentrations of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Sulfate isotopes record this oxidation chemistry in the atmosphere, and these isotopically distinct molecules then precipitate in the Arctic's yearly snow cycles.