Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


Professor Flanner researches the Little Ice Age

Posted: September 3, 2013

Professor Flanner researches the Little Ice Age

Professor Mark Flanner led the black carbon modeling for a study on the end of the mid-19th-century Little Ice Age in Europe.

The study found that black carbon alone affects ice and snow cover. This explains why the European glaciers of the Little Ice Age retreated decades before global temperatures rose.

The team ran computer models of glacier behavior, starting with recorded weather conditions and adding the new black carbon data. Flanner led the modeling of how much the black carbon reduced the amount of light the snow reflected.

"Our model treats the sunlight photons like pinballs bouncing through the ice crystals that make up the snow," Flanner said. "Every once in a while, one of the photons encounters a dark soot particle, which absorbs it and heats up."

The Little Ice Age was a few-hundred-year period of long, severe winters. Scientists have interpreted temperature records to show that it ended sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. Yet, between 1860 and 1930, large glaciers in the Alps retreated an average of nearly 1 kilometer while temperatures in that region actually dropped, according to NASA.

Researchers looked to history for answers and found that the industrialization of Europe (which involved an increase in coal burning) occurred around the same time the glaciers started shrinking.

"It's interesting that soot had a larger effect in 19th century Europe than it is having now," Flanner said. "This was before we learned how to capture the particles as they were emitted. We were just burning stuff and letting the pollution accumulate in the atmosphere."

To read the full U-M News Service article by Nicole Casal Moore, please click here.

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