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Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy

  1. Carl C. Fuldnerc,1,2
  1. aCommittee on Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637;
  2. bLife Sciences Section, Integrative Research Center, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL 60605;
  3. cDepartment of Art History, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637
  1. Edited by Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, and approved September 1, 2017 (received for review June 21, 2017)


Emission inventories of major climate-forcing agents like black carbon suffer high uncertainty for the early industrial era, thereby limiting their utility for extracting past climate sensitivity to atmospheric pollutants. We identify bird specimens as incidental records of atmospheric black carbon, filling a major historical sampling gap. We find that prevailing emission inventories underestimate black carbon levels in the United States through the first decades of the 20th century, suggesting that black carbon’s contribution to past climate forcing may also be underestimated. This study builds toward a robust, spatially dynamic inventory of atmospheric black carbon, highlighting the value of natural history collections as a resource for addressing present-day environmental challenges.


Atmospheric black carbon has long been recognized as a public health and environmental concern. More recently, black carbon has been identified as a major, ongoing contributor to anthropogenic climate change, thus making historical emission inventories of black carbon an essential tool for assessing past climate sensitivity and modeling future climate scenarios. Current estimates of black carbon emissions for the early industrial era have high uncertainty, however, because direct environmental sampling is sparse before the mid-1950s. Using photometric reflectance data of >1,300 bird specimens drawn from natural history collections, we track relative ambient concentrations of atmospheric black carbon between 1880 and 2015 within the US Manufacturing Belt, a region historically reliant on coal and dense with industry. Our data show that black carbon levels within the region peaked during the first decade of the 20th century. Following this peak, black carbon levels were positively correlated with coal consumption through midcentury, after which they decoupled, with black carbon concentrations declining as consumption continued to rise. The precipitous drop in atmospheric black carbon at midcentury reflects policies promoting burning efficiency and fuel transitions rather than regulating emissions alone. Our findings suggest that current emission inventories based on predictive modeling underestimate levels of atmospheric black carbon for the early industrial era, suggesting that the contribution of black carbon to past climate forcing may also be underestimated. These findings build toward a spatially dynamic emission inventory of black carbon based on direct environmental sampling.


  • ?1S.G.D. and C.C.F. contributed equally to this work.

  • ?2To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: dubaysg{at}uchicago.edu or cfuldner{at}uchicago.edu.

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