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Radiative forcing by light-absorbing particles in snow


As one of the brightest natural surfaces on Earth, the darkening of snow by light-absorbing particles (LAPs) — dust, black carbon or microbial growth — can trigger albedo feedbacks and accelerate snowmelt. Indeed, an increase in black carbon deposition following the industrial revolution has led to the recognition that LAP radiative forcing has contributed to a reduction in the global cryosphere, with corresponding climatic impacts. This Review synthesizes our current understanding of the distribution of radiative forcing by LAPs in snow, and discusses the challenges that need to be overcome to constrain global impacts, including the limited scope of local-scale observations, limitations of remote sensing technology and the representation of LAP-related processes in Earth system models.

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Fig. 1: A representation of how LAPs impact snow albedo and net solar radiation.
Fig. 2: Variation in snow albedo across the range of snow reflectance for changing LAP content and snow grain size.
Fig. 3: A summary of RF values for LAPs in snow at the regional to global scale from observations and Earth system modelling.
Fig. 4: The global distribution of springtime RF by LAPs in snow from Earth system modelling.


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Part of this work was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology under contract with NASA. CNRM/CEN is part of Labex OSUG@2020 (ANR-10-LABX-56). Work by M.D. on LAP in snow is funded by an ANR JCJC EBONI grant (ANR-16-CE01-0006). J.M.C. acknowledges funding from the UK NERC grant ‘Black and Bloom’ (NE/M021025/1) and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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S.M.M. drafted the initial manuscript, and incorporated content from M.F. on Earth system modelling, J.M.C. on microbial/biological radiative forcing, M.D. on radiative forcing by LAPs in snow in Europe and T.H.P. on remote sensing. All authors contributed to editing, revising and improving the Review.

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Correspondence to S. McKenzie Skiles.

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Skiles, S.M., Flanner, M., Cook, J.M. et al. Radiative forcing by light-absorbing particles in snow. Nature Clim Change 8, 964–971 (2018).

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