Greenland’s ice sheets are disappearing faster than anyone predicted. Climatologist Jason Box has a radical theory why – and even more radical ideas about upending the global-warming science establishment.
By Jeff Goodell
A few weeks ago, on a blue-sky day on the west coast of Greenland, our helicopter swooped along the calving front of the Jakobshavn glacier, flying dangerously close to a 400-foot-high wall of ancient melting ice that stretches for about six miles across Disko Bay. Jakobshavn is the fastest-moving glacier in the world, and it is sliding into the sea at a top speed of 170 feet a day. How quickly this giant slab of ice and snow – and hundreds like it across the North and South Poles – disappears is the biggest uncertainty in the world of climate science. The faster these glaciers melt, the faster seas will rise, inundating cities throughout the world, and the more unpredictable the world’s weather system is likely to become. Our future is written in ice.
The chopper cruised back and forth at the southern edge of the glacier, looking for a patch of open ground that Jason Box, a 40-year-old glaciologist who is leading the expedition, had identified in satellite photos. Box and the pilot exchanged words on the intercom, then Box gave a thumbs up. The chopper touched down on an unremarkable stretch of rocky tundra about the size of a Walmart parking lot, and Box jumped out, followed by a videographer. “Welcome to New Climate Land,” he announced and then launched into a giddy, erudite stand-up monologue for the camera that would have made his high school science teacher proud. “For thousands of years,” he explained, this spot had been covered by a tall building’s worth of ice and snow. But now, in the past few months, the final traces of that ancient ice had disappeared. “We are likely to be the first human beings to ever stand on this piece of ground,” Box said excitedly.
It was all a tad melodramatic, perhaps. But Box doesn’t shy away from bold strokes. As he sees it, the general public has been betrayed by the reluctance of climate researchers to speak about the dangers of climate change with sufficient urgency. For Box, this has never been a problem. In 2009, he announced the Petermann glacier, one of the largest in Greenland, would break up that summer – a potent sign of how fast the Arctic was warming. Most glaciologists thought he was nuts – especially after the summer passed and nothing happened. In 2010, however, Petermann began to calve; two years later, it was shedding icebergs twice the size of Manhattan. Another example: In early 2012, Box predicted there would be surface melting across the entirety of Greenland within a decade. Again, many scientists dismissed this as alarmist claptrap. If anything, Box was too conservative – it happened a few months later. He also believes that the climate community is underestimating how much sea levels could rise in the coming decades. When I ask him if he thinks the high-end projections of six feet are too low, he doesn’t hesitate: “Shit, yeah.”
“Jason has one very important quality as a scientist,” says Thomas Painter, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “He is willing to say crazy stuff and push the boundaries of conventional wisdom.”
Though Box had predicted the severity of last summer’s melt, he struggled to understand why so much ice disappeared so quickly. Some climate modelers pointed to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns that pushed up temperatures across the Arctic. Others attributed it to the heat-trapping properties of low clouds. But Box decided to return to Greenland this summer – his 24th trip here in the past 20 years – to test a more startling hypothesis, part of what he calls “a unified theory” of glaciology: that tundra fires in Canada, massive wildfires in Colorado and pollution from coal-fired power plants in Europe and China had sent an unexpectedly thick layer of soot over the Arctic region last summer, which settled onto Greenland’s vast frozen interior, increasing the amount of sunlight the snow and ice absorbed, which in turn accelerated the melting. It was a powerful connection – but was it true? Savvy packager that he is, Box hasn’t just put forth this theory in scientific journals and grant proposals. He’s also branded it: The expedition, called the Dark Snow Project, is the first crowd-sourced scientific research trip to Greenland. “The old ways of doing things aren’t working,” Box tells me one evening. “I want to pursue big ideas, but I also want to communicate them in ways that the public understands. Scientists need to do everything they can to wake people up. It is our job, our moral responsibility.”
‘It’s hard to get your mind around how fast the Arctic is changing,” said Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University. According to NASA, Greenland and Antarctica are losing three times as much ice each year as they did in the 1990s. Summer sea-ice cover is half as big as it was from 1979 to 2000, and many scientists are predicting an ice-free Arctic by the end of the decade. Not so long ago, the Northwest Passage, the storied northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, required an icebreaker ship to navigate it. This summer, people are attempting the passage in a sea kayak.
Ice is melting for a simple reason: “The Arctic is warming faster than any place on Earth,” says Konrad Steffen, a research scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. As the ice vanishes, the region’s albedo, or reflectivity, changes. “Snow is the most reflective substance known in nature,” says Painter. Clean, fresh snow reflects away about 90 percent of the sunlight that hits it. But as the ice softens, its structure changes, lowering the reflectivity and absorbing more heat. As it melts away, more water and land are exposed, both of which are darker, and both of which absorb still more heat. This in turn melts more ice, creating a feedback loop that can accelerate quickly.
Of course, scientists have understood the basic physics of reflectivity for a long time. But the behavior of ice sheets, which are notoriously hard to capture with conventional climate models, can come very close to chaos theory – where small changes in the path of the jet stream or the amount of cloud cover can lead to enormous effects. The Great Melt of 2012 was an example of this. “When it happened,” says Michael Mann, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State, “you had to wonder – what is missing from our models? Is there some basic physics that we don’t understand – or is there a human factor that we are not calculating, like the effects of soot on the snow?”
In Box’s view, glaciologists have spent too much time thinking about the physics of how glaciers move but not enough time thinking about how they melt, and how meltwater – those beautiful turquoise pools in Greenland glaciers – seeps down into crevasses and flows along the base, carrying heat with it, and accelerating the disintegration of the glacier. “Traditional glaciologists tend to be hard-ice guys,” says Box. “They’re not used to thinking about the connection between the atmosphere and ice, and how small changes in temperature and reflectivity can amplify over time.”
Last summer, box was in a New York airport on his way to Greenland when he saw the first video images of the massive wildfires in Colorado. “It’s a strange feeling, watching your home state burn on TV,” says Box. But it gave him an idea. “Jason called me and said, ‘Do you think soot from wildfires might be affecting ice melt in Greenland?’ ” recalls NASA’s Painter. “I told him that I didn’t know if soot particles were landing there, but it was certainly conceivable, given the circulatory patterns of the Earth’s atmosphere.” A few weeks later, the case for this grew stronger when Box was scanning laser satellite images of Greenland and discovered a cloud of smoke – possibly drifting soot from a wildfire – over the ice.
The idea that soot can have a powerful effect on the melt rate of snow and ice is not new. The godfather of global-warming science, James Hansen, explored the idea in a paper published in 2003, arguing that if soot reduced the reflectivity of Arctic ice by just two percent, it had the same effect on the melt rate of the glacier as a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. What is new is Box’s attempt to link last summer’s Colorado and Canadian wildfires directly with the 2012 meltdown in Greenland – to make a direct connection between a particular fire and a particular melting event.
But Box needed to get to Greenland immediately and measure the reflectivity of the glacier’s surface, as well as collect samples that may contain soot. Box reached out to the National Science Foundation, hoping to get enough funds – about $100,000 from federal research agencies – for a trip to Greenland to test his hypothesis. “It was too late,” says Painter. “All the research funds for the year were gone.”
For Box, it was just another example of the slowness and ineffectiveness of establishment science. “For most scientists, publishing a paper is a masturbatory act,” Box tells me. “A few people read it, you feel good, and then it’s over. It has no influence on policymakers; it does nothing to increase public understanding of what is happening to the climate system.”
That’s when he hatched the idea for Dark Snow, threw up a website and asked for donations to help him fund the research that would allow him to answer a simple question: “How much does wildfire and industrial soot darken snow, increasing melt?” By spring 2013, Box raised the money he needed (Jeremy Grantham, the British investor who has long warned that our fossil-fuel economy is unsustainable, kicked in $25,000). “It’s a sad commentary on the state of science funding in America when legitimate projects from respected scientists like Jason Box can’t get funded through the normal channels,” says Penn State’s Mann. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a lot more privately funded climate research like this in the future.”