Greenland Something Less than Snow White
July 3, 2012
Meltfactor is the blog of Jason Box, of the Byrd Polar Center at Ohio State U.
The following provides detail to a story run by NOAA entitled Greenland Ice Sheet Getting Darker…
Freshly fallen snow under clear skies reflects 84% (albedo= 0.84) of the sunlight falling on it (Konzelmann and Ohmura, 1995). This reflectivity progressively reduces during the sunlit (warm) season as a consequence of ice grain growth, resulting in a self-amplifying albedo decrease, a positive feedback. Another amplifier; the complete melting of the winter snow accumulation on glaciers, sea ice, and the low elevations of ice sheets exposes darker underlying solid ice. The albedo of low-impurity snow-free glacier ice is in the range of 30% to 60% (Cuffey and Paterson, 2010). Where wind-blown-in and microbiological impurities accumulate near the glacier ice surface (Bøggild et al. 2010), the ice sheet albedo may be extremely low (20%) (Cuffey and Paterson, 2010). Thus, summer albedo variability exceeds 50% over parts of the ice sheet where a snow layer ablates by mid-summer, exposing an impurity-rich ice surface (Wientjes and Oerlemans, 2010), resulting in absorbed sunlight being the largest source of energy for melting during summer and explaining most of the inter-annual variability in melt totals (van den Broeke et al. 2008, 2011).
The photo below shows how dark the ice sheet surface can become in the lowest ~1000 m elevation in the “ablation area” after the winter snow melts away and leaves behind an impurity-rich surface. This dark area is where the albedo feedback with melting is strongest.
Satellite observations from the NASA Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) indicate a significant Greenland ice sheet albedo decline (-5.6±0.7%) in the June-August period over the 12 melt seasons spanning 2000-2011. According to linear regression, the ablation area albedo declined from 71.5% in 2000 to 63.2% in 2011 (time correlation = -0.805, 1-p=0.999). The change (-8.3%) is more than two times the absolute albedo RMS error (3.1%). Over the accumulation area, the highly linear (time correlation = -0.927, 1-p>0.999) decline from 81.7% to 76.6% over the same period also exceeds the absolute albedo RMS error.
According to Jason Box, the lead author of the Greenland chapter of the 2011 Arctic Report Card and the analyst of the reflectiveness data, the darkening in the interior is just as remarkable than the changes at the margins. The interior is the high-point of the dome-shaped ice sheet, rising to nearly two miles above sea level. There is no visible melting there in the summer, so why is the area becoming darker?
The darkening in the non-melting areas, says Dr. Box, is due to changes in the shape and size of the ice crystals in the snowpack as its temperature rises. Snow grains clump together, and they reflect less light than the many-faceted, smaller crystals. Additional heat rounds the sharp edges of the crystals. Round particles absorb more sunlight than jagged ones do.