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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

Black Carbon in the Antarctic: A Short-Lived Pollutant with Long-Lasting Consequences

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

"When black carbon falls from the atmosphere onto snow or ice, it accelerates the melt rate and exposes darker-colored earth or materials beneath it, resulting in increased sunlight absorption and higher surface temperatures."

The shipping sector plays a pivotal role in global supply chains, but on the road to decarbonization, it remains a significant obstacle in reaching climate goals. Currently, the shipping industry is responsible for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which matches emissions from the entire aviation sector. While these statistics are heavy enough on their own, a much quieter and harder-to-manage issue is intertwined - black carbon.

Black carbon is a dark and tiny molecule emitted as a byproduct when fuels are not burned completely. These particles are approximately 100-times smaller than the width of a human hair, making them small enough to penetrate deep into human lungs - often causing severe tissue damage, which can lead to lung disease and early death.

Black carbon also contributes directly to climate change, although it is considered to have a short life cycle after emission. While black carbon usually only exists in the environment for a few days to a few weeks after it enters the atmosphere, it can have a relatively significant impact. Black carbon particles are minuscule, but they absorb sunlight rapidly and directly increase the local atmospheric temperature where they exist. Further, when black carbon falls from the atmosphere onto snow or ice, it accelerates the melt rate and exposes darker-colored earth or materials beneath it, resulting in increased sunlight absorption and higher surface temperatures.

Increased surface temperatures and subsequent ice melt are particularly destructive in places like the Antarctic, where the rapid effects of climate change are more severe than anywhere else in the world. The Antarctic’s largest ice caps are already beginning to break away and melt, contributing to rising global sea levels and furthering the threat of climate change. In fact, recent and severe cold weather anomalies in North America and Europe are directly linked to the warming Arctic. Considering the shipping industry’s black carbon contributions in the polar region, which grew by approximately 85% between 2015 and 2019, it’s a threat that must be managed before the fallout becomes too drastic to tackle.

Mitigating Black Carbon at the Source: Is it an Option?

Around the world, ships operate using some of the cheapest and most environmentally-harmful fuels available - Heavy Fuel Oils (HFOs). Heavy Fuel Oils are the “bottom of the barrel leftovers” from the oil refining process, which are toxic to humans and wildlife and are the primary source of black carbon emissions from ships - accounting for up to 21% of the shipping industry’s climate warming impacts.

In the Antarctic, HFOs are the most prevalent type of marine fuel, with one study estimating that HFOs were used by nearly 60% of ships in the region. Not only is black carbon a significant worry in terms of emissions, but HFO spills are notoriously tricky to clean - which can have particularly harmful impacts in vulnerable environments like the Antarctic.

Developing Heavy Fuel Oil Regulations in the Antarctic

In November 2020, the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved a drafted plan for a ban on using HFOs in the Antarctic. The biggest issue with the ban is that it contains numerous loopholes that will only result in minimal reductions of black carbon emissions in the region in the coming years. The diminishing ice in the region and the expected increase in shipping traffic furthers the challenge. Unfortunately, the policy’s loopholes will not be closed entirely until 2029 - a date nearing one of the first milestones in the global effort to reduce the severe and increasing impacts of climate change.

One way to circumvent this timeline is by drastically changing how the shipping industry operates. By simply putting regulations on the types of marine fuels used in the shipping industry, black carbon emissions could be reduced dramatically. Distillate fuels, a much cleaner alternative to HMOs, have a much cleaner burn, and while carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are present, black carbon emissions could be reduced by nearly 50% in the Arctic regions.

Further, by requiring commercial and industrial-operated ships to install climate-smart equipment like scrubbers and emissions sensors, the shipping industry could effectively and efficiently develop strategies to help mitigate its climate impacts.

How Dark Shipping in the Antarctic makes Mitigating Black Carbon More Challenging

Dark shipping remains a challenge in almost every part of the world, used for numerous strategies, including human trafficking, sanctions avoidance, and military operations. However, the primary reason for dark shipping in the polar regions is IUU fishing.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is a general term used to describe a growing global problem that is destroying natural resources, putting national and international conservation efforts in jeopardy, and creating an unfair economic playing field for an industry that is responsible for the livelihoods of up to 12% of the global population.

In the Antarctic, IUU fishing fleets are wreaking havoc on vulnerable marine habitats and fish populations. In recent years, more and more illicit fishing ships have been operating in the region, casting gillnets for toothfish and undermining conservation efforts in this exposed part of the world.

What's more? The threat of black carbon emissions in the Antarctic is accelerated considerably by IUU fishing fleets. Not only are these ships operating without the knowledge of regulatory agencies (making it hard to calculate risks and develop appropriate climate mitigation strategies), but most are likely operating at the lowest environmental threshold possible.

IUU fishing operations have one goal. Get in, get out, and make money. It would come as no surprise, then, that they would operate using the cheapest and most environmentally-harmful fuels available - HMOs. To mitigate the threat of IUU fishing in the Antarctic and its fallouts, which include black carbon emissions, public and private organizations must continue to develop strategies to identify, strategize, and stop dark shipping efforts globally. Especially in the Arctic regions, dark shipping threats have the potential to compound exponentially, making it a consideration that deserves the focus and attention of maritime authorities.

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