Distinguishing the relative contribution of fossil fuel and biomass combustion aerosols deposited at Summit, Greenland through isotopic and molecular characterization of insoluble carbon


Quantifying combustion aerosols transported to Summit, Greenland has typically involved the measurement of water-soluble inorganic and organic ions in air, snow, and ice. However, the ubiquitous nature of atmospheric soluble ions makes it difficult to separate the combustion component from the natural component. More specific combustion indicators are therefore needed to accurately quantify inputs from biomass and fossil-fuel burning. This work reports on radiocarbon (14C) analysis of elemental carbon (EC) and quantification of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) of water-insoluble particles from a snowpit excavated at Summit, Greenland in 1996. The 14C measurements allowed us to quantify the relative contribution of EC from biomass burning and fossil-fuel combustion transported to and deposited at Summit during periods of 1994 and 1995. Specific PAHs associated with conifer combustion helped to identify snowpit layers impacted by forest fires. Our results show that fossil EC was the major component during spring and fall 1994, while biomass EC and fossil EC were present in roughly equal amounts during summer 1994. PAH ratios in spring layers of the snowpit indicate substantial inputs from anthropogenic sources and the ΣPAH depth profile displays springtime maxima that coincided with non-sea-salt sulfate ion maximum concentrations. In other layers, ammonium ion concentrations were independent of the isotopic and molecular carbon measurements. This work demonstrates the utility of radiocarbon techniques to quantify the two different sources of combustion-generated particles at Summit; however, portions of the 14C results were indeterminate due to large uncertainties that were the result of chemical impurities introduced in the EC isolation technique. Additionally, PAH measurements were successfully performed on as little as 100 ml of snowmelt water, demonstrating the potential for future finer sample resolution.

Publication Date


Journal Title

Atmospheric Environment



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Document Type