Black, a dangerous but not new color for the Arctic

-Karin Almlöf


No one has missed that particulate matter and in particularly soot (black carbon) colors the ice and snow in the arctic black and contributes to an even more rapid melting process. The black carbon comes from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass in various sources at land and at sea. Shipping are today seen as a secondary source, but as shipping activities increases in the Arctic the concern of burning heavy fuel oil in ships is raising. Immediate reductions of black carbon emissions could slow the Arctic warming in a short period of time and “buy” some time to come up with more effective CO2 mitigation measures.

The Arctic Council has had black carbon emissions high on its agenda lately, the emissions are expected to “exceed 2004 levels nearly fivefold by 2030 and over 18-fold by 2050 with a high-growth scenario for Arctic shipping” 15 international environmental experts and spokespersons state in an open letter to Ambassador David Balton of the U.S. State Department to take action on heavy fuel oil (

The article Keeping the Arctic White: Black Carbon and International Law” is based on the author’s upcoming paper ‘The Effectiveness of the Regulatory Regime for Black Carbon Mitigation in the Arctic” and considers “the ways in which black carbon emissions are regulated at the international level and demonstrate the limited relevance of the binding or non-binding nature of international norms in this respect”. The author Daria Shapovalova says; the distinctness of the black carbon problem from the regulatory point of view is that it belongs to both air pollution and climate change. On the international level, black carbon as an air pollutant is covered by the Gothenburg Protocol under the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP). As a climate forcer, it is being addressed by the Arctic Council non-binding BC and Methane Framework (


The Arctic Council expert group on Black carbon and Methane 

An expert group was established at the Arctic Council in April 2015, and they met for the first time in January 2016. The group’s objective is to “periodically assess progress of the implementation of the Arctic Council’s Framework for Action on Black Carbon and Methane, and to inform policy makers from Arctic states and for participating Arctic Council Observer states. This includes preparing a “Summary of Progress and Recommendations” report, with appropriate conclusions and recommendations” (

A Nordic workshop on Action related to Short-lives Climate Forces Organized by the the Nordic Council of Ministers Climate and Air Quality Group in 2013

The workshop found that Short-lived air pollutants such as black carbon might have a larger impact on global warming than earlier assessments indicated. Measures to abate Short-lived Climate Forcers (SLCFs), especially for the Arctic, could reduce the speed of global warming in the shorter time frame of 20–30 years. One of the conclusions concerning international actions at the workshop was that “in accordance with the Svalbard Declaration the Nordic countries could intensify their efforts to reduce emissions of SLCFs at a global level and work more closely together internationally to advocate more ambitious regulation of such emissions”. Further they concluded that there may also be benefits of from closer Nordic co-operation in voluntary international initiatives like the CCAC (Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollutants).

A disconnect between research and political progress

It seems to be a lot of talk about regulations of black carbon and the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, but progress is slow, Sue Libenson, Senior Arctic Program Officer for Pacific Environment says:

  • A continuing disconnect between research and political progress remains when it comes to the issue of heavy fuel oil and shipping in arctic waters, And continues, “The Arctic Council identified a spill of heavy fuel oil as the top threat posed by shipping to the arctic environment in its 2009 comprehensive Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. “However, the Arctic Council has taken no action to advise the shipping industry to curtail its use and switch to cleaner fuels. Concerns include the risk of an oil spill, black carbon emissions which especially speed climate change in the Arctic and greenhouse gas emissions” (

Black carbon leaves the atmosphere in weeks, not decades or centuries like carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. To remove the source of pollution will be a highly effective way in both stopping the warming effects globally as well as improving the air quality in the Arctic ( One can ask why this very important issue of regulating these emissions isn’t fixed yet. Perhaps a combination of many chefs, the distance between research and policymakers and a slow Arctic Council lies behind.



Photos by: NASA and the Arctic Council



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