Dark Snow Project’s Crowdfunded Climate Science Experiment

By: Mary Catherine O’Connor

Jason Box at a weather station on Greenland's dark snow. Photo: Hughie Balfour Paul

Jason Box at a weather station on Greenland’s dark snow. Photo: Hughie Balfour Paul

Everything is connected; a catastrophic weather event in one hemisphere can have ripple effects on the other side of the globe. That is no news to climate scientists. But last summer, as the United States was in the throes of one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, climate scientist Jason Box, who studies Greenland’s ice sheet, wondered about a direct link between those fires and the frightening speed at which the ice sheet was melting.

Among the fires last summer were large tundra blazes in Alaska and Canada. Box used weather analysis and computer models to show that smoke from those fires later passed over the Greenland ice sheet. Last summer also marked a catastrophic, unprecedented milestone in the loss of that ice sheet: 90 percent of the world’s largest island was thawing in July.

Did the wildfires exacerbate that massive thaw? Box thinks they did, and now he’s leading a fundraising effort to find out.

But after being denied a grant from the National Science Foundation, Box decided to turn to the masses. He is attempting to crowdfund an expedition to Greenland this summer in order to sample ice cores and study whether the wildfires are not just correlated to last summer’s exceptional melting, but in fact caused it.

Snow’s reflectivity (or “albedo” in science speech) starts to plummet when white snow turns to water, because water is darker and absorbs more of the sun’s energy. This can reduce albedo to 60 percent. Add soot generated by wildfires and/or industrial emissions (transportation, etc.), which is deposited on the ice by traveling through the air, and the reflectivity falls much further, to south of 40 percent. This cranks up the melting all the more. Dirty snow melts faster than white snow.

Called the Dark Snow Project, Box’s crowdfunding experiment germinated after he received some philanthropic seed money following the publication of a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibbon. It wasn’t nearly enough to fund an expedition, says Box, but it was enough to get the ball rolling. After spending some of the money on Web design, he presented his findings about the movement of soot from the wildfires over Greenland at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in early December. He also used the attention to announce his latest project.

What followed has been steady and strong support, generated through various news stories, especially a piece published by Slate which Box says has driven more than half the traffic to the Dark Snow website.

So far, the effort has raised north of $70,000 of the $150,000 needed to run the expedition. “We have a Kickstarter campaign drafted and are going to launch it when we are within reach of the final funding goal,” says Box, adding: “We are doing well on our own.”
Source: Outside Online – by Mary Catherine O’Connor

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