Arctic haze

Arctic haze is the phenomenon of a visible reddish-brown haze in the atmosphere at high latitudes in the Arctic due to air pollution. A major distinguishing factor of Arctic haze is the ability of its chemical ingredients to persist in the atmosphere for an extended period of time compared to other pollutants. Due to limited amounts of snow, rain, or turbulent air to displace pollutants from the polar air mass in spring, Arctic haze can linger for more than a month in the northern atmosphere.

History of Arctic haze

Arctic haze was first noticed in 1750 when the Industrial Revolution began. Explorers and whalers could not figure out where the foggy layer was coming from. "Poo-jok" was the term the Inuit (Eskimos) used for it. Another hint towards this issue was relayed through notes by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen. After trekking through the Arctic he found dark stains on the ice. This was about a century ago. The term "Arctic haze" was coined in 1956 by Murray Mitchell, a U.S. Air Force officer stationed in Alaska. He used it to describe an unusual reduction in visibility observed by North American weather reconnaissance planes. When an aircraft is within a layer of Arctic haze, pilots report that horizontal visibility can drop to one tenth that of normally clear sky. At this time it was unknown as to whether the haze was natural or was formed by pollutants, so no further research was done in the next 18 years.

The haze is seasonal, reaching a peak in late winter and spring. In 1972 Dr. Glenn Shaw of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska attributed this smog to transboundary anthropogenic pollution, whereby the Arctic is the recipient of contaminants whose sources are thousands of miles away.

The pollutants are commonly thought to originate from coal-burning in northern mid-latitudes, especially from Asia. The aerosols contain about 90% sulfur and the rest is carbon, which makes the haze reddish in color. This pollution is heating the Arctic atmosphere faster than any region on Earth.

Arctic winters allow for the most prominent capture of greenhouse gases; however, even during the summer days of bright sun, gases still are absorbed by the atmosphere. The reflectivity of the snow prevents a lot of the heat from being absorbed into the ground, but the environment is also extremely dry and still. The haze is built when the gases that are floating in the air are stationary. When this occurs it is more likely that when the sun's heat bounces off the ground, it will become trapped in these gases, causing the surface to warm more rapidly.

Origination of pollutants

The Industrial Revolution was the first era that toxic substances built up to create a blanket of haze. Human-induced greenhouse gases are the main reason the Arctic is at risk while undergoing major warming. Ship emissions, the smoke from forest fires, mercury, aluminium, vanadium, manganese, and aerosol and ozone pollutants are many examples of the pollution that is affecting this atmosphere. Some of those pollutants are indications of coal burning. Carbon dioxide from factories and cars also contribute to the pollution that warms the Arctic a couple degrees during the so-called "episodes". Different pollutants actually represent different colors of haze. Dr. Shaw discovered, in 1976, that the yellowish haze is from dust storms in China and Mongolia. The particles were carried by unusual air currents. The trapped particles were dark gray the next year he took a sample. That was caused by a heavy amount of industrial pollutants.

Recent studies

According to Tim Garrett, an assistant professor of meteorology at the University of Utah, mid-latitude cities contribute pollution to the Arctic, and it mixes with thin clouds, allowing them to trap heat more easily. Garrett was involved in the study of Arctic haze at the university. The study found that during the dark Arctic winter, when there is no precipitation to wash out pollution, the effects are strongest, because pollutants can warm the environment up to three degrees Fahrenheit.

The study Pollution from industrialized nations leading cause of Arctic heating quoted members of Northern Arctic's indigenous communities as saying that they were already living with the consequences of diminished sea ice. "Up here, climate change is very real. As the sea ice goes out earlier and gets thinner, it affects our subsistence reliance on walrus and polar bears", said Charlie Johnson, a 68-year-old Inuit man who serves as the executive director of the Alaska Nanuuq Commission, a group formed to protect the polar bear. He said polar bears and walruses always travelled across sea ice, using it as a staging ground for feeding. Now the animals are increasingly forced to stay on shore, he said. "An unusually large group of 50,000 walruses recently congregated near a Chukchi village on the north coast of the Chukotka peninsula. When they group together like that, their social structure breaks down and subjects them to stampedes and other stresses. We found 198 walrus carcasses when they left. That causes polar bears to come and feed, and then you have more human-bear encounters", he said.

Well-known researchers

Dr. Glen Shaw, from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, was the first scientist to put forth ideas about Arctic Haze in 1972. His findings are currently being pursued by researchers in understanding the impact of this pollution towards global warming. The Arctic is perceived, by many people, as a pure, clean, cold region of the Earth because there is not much industrial life. Cold is correct, but the haze proves that pollution travels.

Another famous researcher discovered the haze phenomenon by mistake. Only as a hobby did Subhankar Banerjee, a native of Calcutta, India, take up photography in the Arctic, and in doing so, became a spokesperson for the region. He shot photos of 3,000 caribou at once crossing the Utukok River. Snow geese and the brant chicks were also in vast wetlands around Teshekpuk Lake. Many pictures show muskoxen apparently silhouetted in fog.

Banerjee presented the photographs to the Smithsonian who then arranged for his photos and captions to go on prominent display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, showed his work on the Senate floor. The Interior Secretary at the time, Gale Norton, said the coastal plain is "flat white nothingness" for most of the year, so Boxer was rebutting with the photos. Fearful of Alaska's congressional delegation, the Smithsonian censored the quotes on the photos and sent them to the basement corridor.

The whole situation ended up making Banerjee a national figure, and his censored exhibit was displayed at Burke Museum and the University of Washington and museums in San Francisco and New York.

After that, he launched The Mountaineers into an ambitious series of books designed to focus the human eye on major environmental issues, all because of his book, "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land".

What is to come

By the end of the 21st century, the Arctic region is expected to rise 5 degrees Fahrenheit on an average day, European climatologists revealed. In the same article, National Geographic quoted co-author of the study, Andreas Stohl, of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, "Previous climate models have suggested that the Arctic's summer sea ice may completely disappear by 2040 if warming continues unabated." Practically all pollution in the high Arctic arrives from more southerly latitudes. Along with the warming comes melting sea ice. Arctic shrinkage could lead to more local pollution sources. If large portions of sea ice disappear, more pollution and stronger climate effects are predicted because of the increase in shipping and Arctic oil drilling. Teshekpuk Lake or the Utukok Highlands, for example, could be prime oil fields, considering parts of the Arctic Refuge are already in debate for drilling. The lake and its wetlands are prime breeding ground for peregrines, gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks, and for the 490,000 animals of the western Arctic caribou herd. Also, because of global warming, the Arctic refuge is seeing more rainfall with a freeze afterward. These issues are putting the animals and the environment at serious risk.



  • Connelly, Joel. Pictures of Arctic are Hard to Argue With. 13 November 2006. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  • Rozell, Ned. Arctic Haze: An Uninvited Spring Guest. 2 April 1996. Geographical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

1 May 2007 Arctic Haze

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