How punk rock science explains glacier melt

"Chasing Ice" Greenland image
© Jeff Orlowski and James Balog

In the current issue of Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell has a great report on why Jason Box's radical approach to climate science is changing our understanding of the unprecedented rate of glacier melt in Greenland.

There is no denying that the arctic is melting at a record-setting pace and that this is related to global warming and climate change, but Box is pursuing a theory that soot from wildfires and burning coal in power plants is making Greenland's glaciers melt even faster than they would because of global warming alone.

Goodell writes:

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.

During the record-setting wildfire season of 2012, Box was anxious to quickly get to Greenland to collect samples of the ice to see if soot from Colorado was landing on the glaciers, but by that time, traditional sources of science research funding were already allocated, so in his unorthodox, punk rock style, Box set out on his own and set up The Dark Snow Project to crowd-fund his research.

Goodell explains that the significance of Box's theory and this project:

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.

This crowd-funded, DIY model of science research is important, because while climate models have done a good job of predicting what will occur as we heat up the climate, some things are changing so fast and to such a severe degree that research may need to be done as catastrophes are occurring in real-time.

If Box's theory is correct, it will be proof of yet another dangerous feedback loop caused by climate change. As the climate warms, weather patterns change, making some areas hotter and drier, which can lead to more wildfires. These wildfires release soot into the atmosphere, which accelerates the rate of melting of glaciers, snow and ice it lands upon, which can lead to less reflectivity, meaning more of the sun's heat is absorbed, leading to more global warming, which leads to even more wildfires, not to mention greater sea level rise, which is already threatening coastal areas around the world.

The systemic nature of the climate is why climage change is the most serious crisis humanity has ever faced. Changing one variable in such a complex system can create ripple effects in so many other areas. This is why waiting until climate change is "really bad" before taking radical, expansive action to address the crisis is not going to work. We have to act now.

Read the rest of the piece at Rolling Stone for more about Box and why his approach is shaking up the traditional methods of the science research establishment.

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