Can the First Crowdfunded Science Expedition Save Greenland’s Ice?

The Dark Snow Project investigates the link between wildfire soot and glacial melting.
Professor Jason Box, seen here on a previous expedition, is a visiting scholar at the Byrd Polar Research Center, investigating the causes of Greenland ice melt. (Photo: Jason Box)
Jun 6, 2013
Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Last summer, glaciologist Jason Box was sitting in a New York airport waiting to embark on his 23rd expedition to Greenland. In his terminal’s waiting area, all televisions were tuned towards breaking news out of Colorado—the state was ablaze with record-setting wildfires.

That moment turned out to be a fortuitous one for Box’s work. He’d already linked Greenland’s ice loss with the warming of the past decade, but watching Colorado, he wondered if the proliferation of U.S. wildfires could be hastening the melting process; specifically, could this wildfire soot be transported through the atmosphere and deposited onto glaciers? If that were happening at a strong enough rate, that soot could be lowering the glaciers’ reflectivity, increasing its solar energy absorption and therefore quickening its melt rate.

Those questions became the foundation of Box’s newly established Dark Snow Project—a field and lab initiative that measures the impact of increasing wildfire and industrial soot on snow and ice reflectivity.

This month, the Dark Snow team is embarking on the first crowdfunded science expedition to Greenland in order to study the link between soot-darkened snow and rapidly increasing melt rates.

The crew is scheduled to leave June 24, and so far have received just enough funding for a bare bones expedition—but their hope is to raise more funds before then.

Jason Box spoke to TakePart about the importance of the Dark Snow Project and how it could change the way climate science is viewed today.

TakePart: What is the Dark Snow Project?

Jason Box: It’s the first-ever Internet, crowdfunded, greenlit science expedition, targeted at sampling from last year’s record melt layer—which right now, is buried under about six feet of snow. We are going to go there, land with a helicopter at a number of places, and just drill down to this melt layer—which is now refrozen—[and] extract core samples that should contain detectable levels of wildfire soot. The idea is to measure how much that soot is darkening Greenland ice.

Why Greenland? Why not some other ice-packed place?

It’s like a laboratory…a detector of distant wildfire soot. And it’s important because it’s so large; it’s three times the area of Texas and it is losing ice. And most of that’s from melting.

And so these dark soot particles are making more sunlight absorption, and I want to measure how much…Is the wildfire soot increasing solar absorption by just a few percent? We want to put a number on that.

We observed that the reflectivity of the ice sheet has declined about seven percent in just the last 12 years, so we know that the surface is getting darker.

And some of that is probably just from more melt at the surface because melting snow is darker than dry snow. And so as the surface gets darker, it absorbs more sunlight and that leads to more melting—it’s a positive feedback. But if we’re sprinkling a little bit more light-absorbing impurities on the surface, that will multiply this effect.

What happens if the soot you’re measuring doesn’t add to Greenland’s surface ice melt—theres still bad news for the continent, right?

Yeah, I mean last year Greenland contributed something like one-and-a-half millimeters to global sea levels just in one year.

This was probably the most extensive surface melting since the north settled Greenland 860 years earlier. And we know that from ice cores, from a study that I’m a co-author on...We are already in uncharted territories.

In your February 2012 paper on albedo, or ice reflectivity, you predicted that if global warming continues at its current rates, the top surface ice of Greenland will melt completely by 2020. But what happens long-term to all of Greenlands ice?

It’s likely that the 2012 melt is the normal situation—and that’s happening a lot sooner than global climate models have predicted…Global climate models under-predict the steepness of decline of the arctic sea ice by a factor of two, and the same state-of-the-art global climate models under-predict the steepness of the loss of snow cover on land by a factor of four.

And so these same climate models don’t produce the climate we observed in 2012 until the year 2100...The models, while useful for kind of projecting some climate…fail to reproduce these kinds of extreme events. They just lack the fidelity of nature, which is an infinitely more complex machine than what very clever people can encode in a supercomputer model.

The albedo story is fundamental to Greenland’s placement of the bigger narrative about climate change and sea level. And examining the dark snow is a fundamental aspect of examining the albedo story. And so I think we’re going right to one of the most important factors as wildfire increases, that will be depositing more light-absorbing impurities on the inland ice.

How can our audience help fund this trip? What can we do?

We’re asking for pledges and we’ve got some perks for pledging at different levels. But besides the perks...the people who pledge in effect join our expedition, so we are engaging this audience. We’re not just bombarding them with science, we’re asking for their participation. And then we will use social media to report on the progress of our campaign.

We’re bringing a well-known climate video blogger, Peter Sinclair, and after just the first two days of work, we’re going to set him up in a cabin on the coast of Greenland and have him crank out some videos, and some high-quality, Internet-based reporting should be coming out real-time so that supporters can see their pledges at work.

How can folks donate? 

At the We also have an And the pledges are U.S. tax deductible…We have a team of well-known published scientists on this project so we have legitimacy and we have experience having worked in Greenland numerous times in the past.

For those who are kind of disenchanted with the government, here’s a way you can kind of bypass the government and directly fund science.

Will you donate to the Dark Snow Project? Let us know in the Comments.

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