WTF is Dark Snow (and why should we care)?

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dark snow and climate change... greenland is melting

Written by Frank Bozzo

The surface of Greenland is darkening…

Ironically, the largest island in the world has always been covered in white ice and snow, until now.

The icy surface has slowly become darker, hence, “dark snow.” This is an important thing to study because this brownish surface does not reflect the sunlight like it should and thus the ice is melting at a faster rate than it used to.

The Dark Snow Project gathers “hard numbers” from the Arctic to quantify the distant snow/ice melting impact of industrial and wildfire black carbon soot; mineral dust; and microbes, each melt factor having some human driven enhancement.

Watch this video to learn more:

Since Greenland can’t take pictures of itself, a group of scientists is sending a few drones aloft so they can see the situation for themselves. In these images, everything that is soot-colored brown/grey is ice.

dark snow from greenland and climate change


Greenland was never green.

There’s an old, perhaps apocryphal, story that the Viking Erik the Red named his newly-discovered island Iceland.

But then he was dismayed to find that no one wanted to move there because it sounded too unpleasant. So when he discovered a larger island that was even icier than Iceland, he named it Greenland in order to attract unwary settlers. But Greenland was never green, or grey or brown, until now. It was white.

What is dark snow and how did it gain attention?

The dark surface absorbs sunlight, making the ice melt faster than scientists predicted. To find out why the ice is dark, Glaciologist Jason Box and his team started the Dark Snow project.

Box, who’s featured in the This Planet video above (and in the documentary film Chasing Ice), may represent a new kind of scientist-activist.

He’s determined to get out on the ice come hell or high water (literally), and even willing to team up with the likes of Greenpeace.

Box increasingly began to think outside of…his last name. Rather than waiting on funding agencies, he teamed up with Greenpeace on a series of expeditions to document, and also dramatize, the ice sheet’s melting. He also began to set up time lapse cameras to observe the ice as it declines.

what's dark snow got to do with climate change

Possible causes of dark snow

Forest Fires

According to Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, soot from forest fires is one contributor, as he reported here:

Climate change and forest fires synergistically drive widespread melt events of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Their ice core study found that black carbon from forest fires helped caused a rare, near-ice-sheet-wide surface melt event that melted 97% of Greenland’s surface on July 11 – 12 2012, and a similar event in 1889. Since Arctic temperatures and the frequency of forest fires are both expected to rise with climate change, the results suggest that widespread melt events on the Greenland Ice Sheet may begin to occur almost annually by the end of century.”


Results from Dark Snow’s 2014 summer expedition are revealing something new—that algae is colonizing the surface of the melting ice sheet.

“these guys [the algae] are packed with a dark purple-brown pigment that protects them from sunlight, but also causes the darkening of the ice surface.” ~ Marek Stibal

Jeff Masters noted in his Weather Underground article that Dark Snow is “the first crowd funded Arctic expedition.”

If you think the Dark Snow Project is as an amazing a feat, check out their website for more information!


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Asst. Ed. Green Diva Grace | images via Dark Snow Project

frank bozzoFrank Bozzo is the Social Media Coordinator for This Planet, a series of short video stories that draw on the best new content and surprising facts about climate, energy and innovation. Connect with This Planet on Twitter and Facebook.

Earth News, Environment, Featured, GD Ticker, Nature

About the author / 

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