Anyone who has ever slipped over on black ice in the dead of winter will attest to how dangerous it is. But a darkening of the Greenland ice sheet could impact upon the entire world, as the hastening trend reduces the Arctic’s ability to reflect sunlight and increases global warming.
The world’s leading expert on the ice that covers the huge expanse of Greenland has told The Independent that he was “stunned” to see how much darker it has become in the past year – warning it could start a hugely damaging “cascading feedback loop” of the area becoming blacker as less and less light is reflected.
Dr Jason Box, a glaciology professor, has just finished his 23rd expedition to the Danish-owned island since 1994, a series of trips that included spending a year camped on the country’s inland ice. And this time, said Dr Box, he had never seen anything like it.
“Where I took the photos I was stunned by how large an area had such a dark appearance,” said Dr Box, who works for the Geological Survey of Greenland. “This rocket ride has just gotten off the launchpad. I expect the snow and ice to continue darkening – every indication is that the Arctic climate will continue warming and the number of wildfires will keep increasing.”
Unlike the black ice found on Britain’s streets, which is clear and takes on the colour of dark surfaces underneath it, Greenland’s ice and snow really is becoming darker. Dr Fox, who co-founded the Dark Snow Project to measure the impact of the blackening ice on its ability to reflect sunlight, has calculated that the ice sheet is 5.6 per cent darker this year than last.
This pushed its “reflectivity” – the proportion of sunlight bounced back into space – in the upper reaches that make up the bulk of Greenland’s ice sheet to an all-time low last month.
The rapid darkening of the snow is probably due to a combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, rises in wind-blown dust and the settling of soot from the record number of Arctic wildfires seen this year, Dr Box says. It could also be the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming.
The surface gets darker as the snow melts because the liquid water content rises and the snow grains increase in size. This darkening further warms the ground – and in turn, the atmosphere – and causes more melting. And so the pattern escalates.
The darkening we have seen in the Greenland ice sheet over the past 12 months means it will absorb huge quantities of additional energy this year – enough to satisfy the annual US electricity consumption twice over, Dr Box says.
In pictures: Changing climate around the world
In pictures: Changing climate around the world
Calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water in Qaqortoq, Greenland
Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on Earth, has shrunk more than 80 percent to 1,000 square kilometers in the past decade. It shrinks mainly because of climate change, expanded irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body of water
A boat navigates among calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Boats are a crucial mode of transportation in the country that has few roads. As cities like Miami, New York and other vulnerable spots around the world strategize about how to respond to climate change, many Greenlanders simply do what theyve always done: adapt. 'Were used to change, said Greenlander Pilu Neilsen. 'We learn to adapt to whatever comes. If all the glaciers melt, well just get more land
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen after being inaugurated in Longyearbyen, Norway. The 'doomsday' seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
A technician preparing to drain a vast underground lake at the Tete Rousse glacier on the Mont Blanc Alpine mountain, to avert a potentially disatrous flood. Some 65,000 cubic metres (2.3 million cubic feet) of water have gathered in a cavity, dangerously raising the pressure beneath the mountain, a favourite spot for holiday makers in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
Cracked mud is picture at sunrise in the dried shores of Lake Gruyere affected by continuous drought near the western Switzerland village of Avry-devant-Pont. A leading climate scientist warned that Europe should take action over increasing drought and floods, stressing that some climate change trends were clear despite variations in predictions
Cattle graze on grassland that remains dry and brown at the height of the rainy season in south of Bakersfield, California. Its third straight year of unprecedented drought, California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years, and dating back as far as 500 years, according to some scientists who study tree rings
An aerial view shows tents of flood-displaced people surrounded by water in southern Sehwan town. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Christiana Figueres met with people displaced by last year's devastating floods. Catastrophic monsoon rains that swept through the country in 2010 and affected some 20 million people, destroyed 1.7 million homes and damaged 5.4 million acres of arable land
An aerial view of flooding in North Wagga Wagga. Climate change is amplifying risks from drought, floods, storm and rising seas, threatening all countries but small island states, poor nations and arid regions in particular, UN experts warned
Damages caused by a landslide on the Pan-American highway near La Moramulca, 55 Km south of Tegucigalpa. International highways have been washed out, villages isolated and thousands of families have lost homes and crops in a region that the United Nations has classified as one of the most affected by climate change
A resident sprays water on a peatland fire in Pekanbaru district in Riau province on Indonesia's Sumatra island. Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, is one of the world's biggest carbon emitters because of rampant deforestation. US Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday issued a clarion call for nations to do to more to combat climate change, calling it 'the world's largest weapon of mass destruction'
An excavator clearing a peatland forest area for a palm oil plantations in Trumon subdistrict, Aceh province, on Indonesia's Sumatra island. As Southeast Asia's largest economy grows rapidly, swathes of biodiverse forests across the archipelago of 17,000 islands have been cleared to make way for paper and palm oil plantations, as well as for mining and agriculture. The destruction has ravaged biodiversity, placing animals such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers in danger of extinction, while also leading to the release of vast amounts of climate change-causing carbon dioxide
Stagnant rain water with tannery waste make the Hazaribagh area in Old Dhaka as well as Buriganga River the most polluted. Each year during the seven-month long dry season between October and April the Buriganga River becomes totally stagnant with its upstream region drying up and becoming polluted from toxic waste from city industries
Waste water from Dhaka city drained to the River Buriganga contributes to its pollutions. On the World Water Day observed in 2007 under the theme Coping with Water Scarcity, under the leadership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, DrikNEWS explores some of the images of the river. UN-Water has identified coping with water scarcity as part of the strategic issues and priorities requiring joint UN action. The theme highlights the significance of cooperation and importance of an integrated approach to water resource management of water at international, national and local levels
Heavy smog has been lingering in northern and eastern parts of China, disturbing the traffic, worsening air pollution and forcing the closure of schools. China's Environment Ministry said it will send inspection teams to provinces and cities most seriously affected by smog to ensure rules on fighting air pollution are being enforced
Furthermore, melting ice is more habitable for micro-organisms, adding dark biomass to the surface, while the decline of snow cover across the Arctic exposes dirt, which can be transported by the wind into other snowy areas.
Dr Box has published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers on the interactions between Greenland’s cryosphere – its areas of ice and snow – and the climate. However, he felt the findings in his latest research were so alarming that he decided not to wait for the lengthy peer-review process to conclude and instead opted to publish first in Slate magazine. He is planning to submit his findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.
As the Arctic warms, forests are burning at a rate that is unprecedented in the last 10,000 years, separate studies show. This year, much of the smoke and soot produced by these wildfires drifted over to Greenland, Dr Box said.
More than 3.3 million hectares burned in Canada’s Northwest Territories this year, nearly nine times the long-term average – resulting in a charred area bigger than the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined.Reuse content