Clues About Pollution Hidden in Pages of Old Books

Photo: Lin Pernille Photography / CC

Some of the most revealing clues into the state of pollution since the the Industrial Revolution aren't only found within the words and sentences contained in centuries worth of scientific publications -- they're hiding in the very pages themselves, too. According to one chemist studying the history of pollution, testing the paper of aging volumes can paint a more accurate picture of the world's CO2 levels over the past few centuries than current methods, like ice and tree core samples.For Dan Yakir, an Israeli chemist from the Weizmann Institute of Science, the paper contained in old books and newspapers holds a wealth of information about the pollution as experienced by the trees used to make them. Normally, researchers have looked to tree core and ice samples to map the planet's historic CO2 levels -- but even better clues may have been literally under their noses the whole time.

"Rather than going to forests all over the world to sample trees we went to the local library," says Yakir.

According to the researcher, using books to map out a history of pollution levels since the start of the industrial revolution has one great advantage over traditional methods -- and it's all about quantity. It takes a lot of tree samples to get an accurate reading, and libraries are a virtual treasure trove of testable tree material. Yakir took to his University's library to perform his research, collecting a small page samples from science and nature literature dating back over two centuries.

Yakir, in his research, looked for the proportion of two separate carbon isotopes that result from the burning of fossil fuels. A report from Sify details what was found:

Yakir's work shows that this continuing dilution is, indeed, clearly recorded in the archival paper and, plotted over time, it demonstrates the increasing intensity of our fossil fuel burning in the past 150 years.

There's more to a book than it's cover -- evidently, much more than most people would ever have imagined.

More on the History of Pollution
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