Slate: Why Greenland’s Dark Snow Should Worry You

September 16, 2014

Above – reposting, first Greenland 2014 piece from last week.

After unpacking a few clean clothes, grabbing long showers, and sharing a few moderate adult beverages, Jason Box and I eased back into the media sphere, after almost 2 weeks on the Greenland sheet. Robin Williams was dead. That hit us both at the same time. I checked email. Jason checked twitter. And took on a startled look.

An unusually blunt statement from usually soft spoken Box had gone viral.

Brian Merchant had a piece on Motherboard, here’s part of it:

This week, scientists made a disturbing discovery in the Arctic Ocean: They saw “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor,” as the Stockholm University put it in a release disclosing the observations. The plume of methane—a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat more powerfully than carbon dioxide, the chief driver of climate change—was unsettling to the scientists.

But it was even more unnerving to Dr. Jason Box, a widely published climatologist who had been following the expedition. As I was digging into the new development, I stumbled upon his tweet, which, coming from a scientist, was downright chilling:


Box, who is currently a professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, has been studying the Arctic for decades. His accolade-packed Wikipedia page notes that he’s made some 20 expeditions to the Arctic since 1994, and served as the lead author on the Greenland section of NOAA’s State of the Climate report from 2008-2012. He also runs the Dark Snow project and writes about the latest findings in the field at his blog, Meltfactor.

In other words, Box knows the Arctic, and he knows climate change—and the methane plumes had him blitzed enough to bring out the F bombs.

Now, the scientists in the Arctic didn’t fully understand why the plumes were occurring. But they speculated that a warmer “tongue” of ocean current was destabilizing methane hydrates on the Arctic slope.

I called the scientist at his office in Copenhagen, and he talked frankly and emphatically about the new threat, and about the specter of climate change in general. He also swore like a sailor, which I’ve often wondered how climatologists refrain from doing, given the urgency of the problem—it’s certainly an entirely accurate way to communicate the climate plight.

Salon had a piece. Jason’s twitter feed had more than tripled. His interview with Bill Maher was online.
Jason’s wife called. A Hungarian acquaintance had told her that Jason was front page news in Budapest.

Now Slate has a big one. Excerpt here:

The ice in Greenland this year isn’t just a little dark—it’s record-setting dark. Box says he’s never seen anything like it. I spoke to Box by phone earlier this month, just days after he returned from his summer field research campaign.

 “I was just stunned, really,” Box told me.

The photos he took this summer in Greenland are frightening. But their implications are even more so. Just like black cars are hotter to the touch than white ones on sunny summer days, dark ice melts much more quickly.

As a member of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Box travels to Greenland from his home in Copenhagen to track down the source of the soot that’s speeding up the glaciers’ disappearance. He aptly calls his crowdfunded scientific survey Dark Snow.

There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming. Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.

This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”

Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.


39 Responses to “Slate: Why Greenland’s Dark Snow Should Worry You”

  1. So.  Vermont is upwind of Greenland.  Who’s willing to march on Montpelier to demand that Schumlin & Co. rescind the discriminatory fees and taxes, reverse their position, and insist that Vermont Yankee keep its 560 megawatts of carbon-free, soot-free power on the grid for another 20 years?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Dumb question. You already know the answer. Almost no one. Like so many others in this country, Vermonters will sit on their hands until it’s likely too late. It’s going to take daily trains of tornados, weekly 500-year-floods, extended killing heat waves, decades long droughts, etc. to shake everyone out of their complacency.

      • Oh, it’s worse than that:  except for the town of Vernon and its environs.  Pols and “environmentalists” were cheering the shutdown.

        We’ll see how much the public likes them when their rates are hiked next year.  As for the pols, they got paid off by the gas interests.  That’s where the money is in this deal.

        • Gingerbaker Says:

          Brilliant analysis, except for the fact that Vernon has already exceeded its planned lifetime by a decade. It ain’t safe to run it – because your precious multi-gazillion dollar nuclear power plants have a lifespan that is finite, and looks to be shorter than the lifespan of solar panels, for one example.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Lighten up—-you know we’re just stirring the pot. And many plants have “exceeded their their planned lifetimes by a decade” and more and are “unsafe” in some folk’s definition—-both nuclear and coal plants—-the question is whether they are able to be “fixed”.

          • Is there any chance you can drop the trained-monkey act and display some rational thought?

            Brilliant analysis, except for the fact that Vernon has already exceeded its planned lifetime by a decade.

            That, my fine furred friend, is a lie.  VY was licensed in 1972 and its renewed operating license runs through 2032.  Political harassment is shutting down more than half a GW of (recently uprated!) carbon-free electricity nearly 20 years before its license would expire, and the license could be extended again.

            It ain’t safe to run it

            The inspectors and expert staff at the NRC said the opposite, but we should believe somebody posting on a “green” blog using the name of an old rock drummer?

            and looks to be shorter than the lifespan of solar panels

            How much electricity were solar panels pumping out during the polar vortex cold snap?  Even the brand-new ones?

            During that cold snap, nuclear power generated more electricity in New England than natural gas (many gas plants couldn’t run because the gas was shunted to heating).  Nuclear kept the lights on, which literally kept people alive.  Are you in favor of killing people to be “greener”?

            (hey, if you can ask loaded questions and throw propaganda, it’s fair to do it right back.)

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            ” Brilliant analysis, except for the fact that Vernon has already exceeded its planned lifetime by a decade.

            That, my fine furred friend, is a lie. VY was licensed in 1972 and its renewed operating license runs through 2032″

            You are making my point for me – thank you very much! The planned lifetime of the plant HAS been exceeded by a decade. I’m here all night try the roast beef.

            Let’s talk about the renewal. According to you:

            ” It ain’t safe to run it

            The inspectors and expert staff at the NRC said the opposite, but we should believe somebody posting on a “green” blog using the name of an old rock drummer

            These experts from the NRC have never met a nuclear power plant they did not want to give an extension to.

            And they changed the rules about how they decide to renew these plants – in a pretty shocking way: “scrapping the requirement that operators prove they were complying with their current license: according to the NYT.

            A lot of people were quite unhappy about the review process, including the N.R.C itself! In fact, the N.R.C Inspector General has said that:

            According to a 2007 audit by the inspector general’s office, … it was often impossible to know whether the agency had truly conducted an independent review of an application or why approval was granted. In some cases, for example, long passages in the commission’s assessment of a renewal appeared to have been simply copied and pasted directly from the application.

            And in a 2008 follow-up memo described to a reporter, the N.R.C.’s inspector general, Hubert T. Bell, went further, suggesting that the N.R.C. staff was unable to adequately document its reviews and may have destroyed essential records. “ (NYT)

            Pretty interesting reading on the topic of aging power plants, the review process, and whether the N.R.C. is actually fulfilling its mission or just giving rubber stamp approvals for the industry, here:


            Maybe the rock drummer is not a liar and fool after all.

          • Please stop the point-and-shriek simian act.  It only makes you look silly.

            You are making my point for me – thank you very much! The planned lifetime of the plant HAS been exceeded by a decade.

            Since you’re still Not Getting It…
            1.  Wrong.  VY is only 2 years past the term of the original license, not “a decade”.
            2.  Wrong again.  The license term is not the design lifespan.  The license term is what the regulators are willing to issue a license for.

            Power plant designers are conservative, by nature.  The oldest generation of plants still operating (the sub-100 MW units are all gone now) were designed to last a minimum of 40 years, given pessimistic assumptions.  That was a lower limit.  As it turns out a lot of those assumptions turned out to be very pessimistic (cores designed to minimize neutron leakage slashed neutron embrittlement, to list just one) so many plants appear to be able to meet their safety margins through 60 years of operation and maybe well beyond.

            Some plant components will need replacement well before 40 years.  Pumps, valves and actuators, steam generators… but they’re like an alternator in your car.  They are not “the plant”.

            These experts from the NRC have never met a nuclear power plant they did not want to give an extension to.

            Owners work closely with the NRC’s inspectors.  If they thought their plant wasn’t in good enough shape to be re-licensed, they’d decommission it instead of paying for all the reviews.

            according to the NYT.

            And you’re taking the article in the NYT, starting with the author and given what the editors did before publication, as the last word on the issue.  Uh-huh.  You know, the NYT published an editorial which stated that space travel was impossible because of “the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  How did that work out in light of history?

            In some cases, for example, long passages in the commission’s assessment of a renewal appeared to have been simply copied and pasted directly from the application.

            And why not?  Many judicial decisions copy directly from briefs submitted by one of the parties.  If the application was written in close consultation with NRC personnel, and the NRC staff agree with it, why re-write it… and maybe get something wrong in translation?  Seriously, you need to stop seeing conspirators behind every tree.

            Maybe the rock drummer is not a liar and fool after all.

            Oh, I’ve loved some of Ginger Baker’s work.  But I wouldn’t ask him about nuclear power.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            see below for reply

      • fletch92131 Says:

        “weekly 500 year floods”?

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Yes. For those who understand the English language, that means “floods that in the past have happened on average every 500 years now happening once a week”

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    I was shocked by how dark the snow was in the “follow the water” clip and commented on it then. The pictures here are even scarier, and Dr. Box’s comments are not going to help me sleep easy—–“cascading negative feedback loops” is the stuff of nightmares.

    I’m glad that Dr. Box is getting lots of notice for his work and his views, even if it took an F-bomb to do it. Perhaps more climate scientists need to start “swearing like sailors” more often as they communicate with the media. I’ve always believed that telling it like it is works better in the long run than trying to be “polite”.

    • The way to reach Bubba (as they’re called in many industries, those hard-working manual laborers who may not be educated) is to speak their language. Maybe if more scientists cussed like sailors and toned their language down to that of non-scientists, they would lose that ivory tower reputation.

      I was sitting in an interview a few days ago, and the person being interviewed was using so much jargon from his industry (different from the industry jargon I come from) that I found it really hard to even understand what he was saying. And I am educated (at least I claim to be… )

      I totally understand why jargon is used, but it’s definitely a HUGE barrier to anyone outside the circle.

  3. redskylite Says:

    That is truly alarming news, no need to pussyfoot in polite scientific framed language, time to drop a few f bombs and stronger, maybe it will get finally through at this late hour.

  4. omnologos Says:

    “increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms”?

    • redskylite Says:

      Correct – the incidence of summer snowstorms has declined in the Arctic, the temperature anomaly is greater at the high Northern Latitudes as is obvious from weather stations and NASA data:

      Jason Box is going out on a limb here, publishing a non-peer reviewed report in Slate, because of the urgency and severity of the problem and loss of albedo, and I admire him for it. He is using plain language that is often lacking in science, this is a shocking finding as bad as the Antarctic finds. A new positive feedback system has evolved. What have we bestowed on our future generations and co-inhabitants ?

      “We document a pronounced decline in summer snowfall over the Arctic Ocean and Canadian Archipelago.”

      • greenman3610 Says:

        one thing we noticed when we had 36 hours of rainy weather – the surface melt loss as measured by ablation stakes at our site was much greater
        on the rainy day, as the sunny days.
        Water very efficiently delivers heat to the ice, more so than even blazing sun.
        As more and more precip falls as rain in Greenland summer, it seems this could be another feedback effect. Not aware of any studies that demonstrate a trend, but they are probably out there.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Yes, as well as INCREASINGLY FREQUENT summer snowstorms in some places as the polar vortex breaks out more frequently. I’ve been snowed on in August in CO and WY, and it’s going to happen more often. In fact, it just happened a few days ago over much of the Rocky Mountain West.

  5. A big huge thanks are in order, for Jason Box and Peter Sinclair. You are elevating the discussion to the level that more and more people are beginning to hear, and hopefully LISTEN. THANK you!

  6. fletch92131 Says:

    I don’t think the professor needs get too concerned, as we are extremely likely to enter a massive glacial period with the next 50 years. That will certainly turn things around on Greenland.

  7. lesliegraham1 Says:

    The facts are “It’s 5.6% darker this year”.
    Minor change and meaningless single data point.

    Same deal as the “vast” plumes.
    ‘Vast’ is not a measurement – to echo Jason – what the f*** does that even mean?

    Neither do we know if these ‘vast’ plumes have appeared recently or have been part of the natural order of things for thousands of years and until we do making hysterical and meaningless tweets about them is just playing straight into the hands of the Denial Industry.

    Can anyone point me to the peer-reviewed studies in respected journals that report cold hard data and facts concerning these topics?
    No – didn’t think so.

    • redskylite Says:

      How about this peer reviewed document

      • lesliegraham1 Says:

        Thank you for your reply ‘redskylite’.

        However, your cite, whilst peer-reviewed and interesting, in no way addresses the effect of ‘dark snow’ or the ‘vast’ plumes of methane.
        It is concerned – as the absract clearly states – with the loss of albedo connected to the well established effect the “darkening of the Arctic associated with disappearing ice”.

        “Disapearing ice” – not ‘dark snow’ nor ‘vast plumes of methane’.

        I am well aware of the effect of disapearing ice cover on albedo – as is anyone who has even a passing understanding of basic climate science.
        By contrast, no peer-reviewed study has SFAIK yet quantified any long term effect of ‘dark snow’, and absolulutely no-one has any idea if the ‘vast’ plumes of methane are even new or out of the ordinary in any way.

        It seems intuitively obvious that ‘dark snow’ increases melt but I would suggest that we don’t jump to conclusions without robust evidence that this years 5% increase in ‘darkness’ is anything other than a statistical blip.
        With regard to the ‘vast’ plumes of methane at this stage almost everything connected to it remains pure speculation and, personaly, I find it a little insulting that we are presumed to be willing to accept that this is a significant development on the basis of no long, medium or even short term observations whatsoever.

        If you, or anyone else, can direct me to a peer-reviewed study that shows that sea-floor methane emissions have increased by a statisticaly significant measured volume over a statisicaly significant timescale I would be delighted to see it and cede my point.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          In regard to the methane plumes, there is a lot of controversy, and I am working on trying to pull together the best info on that in video form. The swedish team that was in the East Siberian Sea this past summer has had some sobering preliminary observations that appear to confirm worrisome observations, at least in media reports, but they have not formally published yet.

          Insofar as the albedo question, Dr. Box published a peer reviewed piece in The Cryosphere in spring of 2012, detailing the decrease in Greenland albedo over the previous decade, and predicting that the process would lead to melt over 100 percent of the ice sheet, and event that happened only a few weeks after the paper was published.
          “Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: thermodynamics and
          atmospheric drivers”
          you can read it at

          Click to access box_et_al_2012_albedo_feedback.pdf

          described also in the original Dark Snow crowd funding video

        • dumboldguy Says:

          In the meantime, try whistling a bit more loudly as you pass the graveyard. While we wait for this “proof” you seem to so desperately need, we can go back in time and look at all the other “unproven” warnings and predictions about AGW that have since been shown to be correct (and even conservative). The problem this time is that massive methane releases and rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap may be signalling “game over”.

          • lesliegraham1 Says:

            I’m not familiar with your ‘whistling past the graveyard’ saying? And to be honest I’m not that interested in sayings nor locutions anyway.

            What I AM interested in is statistically significant long term observations presented in a peer-reviewed study published in a respected science journal that I can cite when some wahckjob representative of the Denial Industry asks for it. As things stand I can’t do that and neither can anyone else to judge from the replies to date.
            The FACT that other warnings and predictions were subsequently ‘proven’ to be well founded is neither here nor there. Until they were ‘proven’ they were – like the ‘vast’ plumes of methane meme – simply that – warnings and predictions.

            The problem this time is that ‘vast’ plumes of methane releases may be signalling “absolutely nothing”. We don’t even know if they are a new phenomena and I am merely suggesting that until we DO know more we should cease providing ‘alarmist’ fodder to the Denial Industry.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            “Whistling past the graveyard” refers to those who pass the graveyard in fear of the “ghosts” and the “terminal reality” that the concept of a graveyard represents. It can be extended to meaning denial, deflection, and a kind of false courage, as well. I think it’s quite a good metaphor for the kind of thinking that otherwise well-informed and honest people employ because the truth may be too hard to face.

            I would suggest that you employ the “Dr. Box plain-speak” technique and tell the whack-jobs that they are simply FOS—throw in some F-bombs to get their attention. You stand there letting them getting away with it while you wait to find “statistically significant long term observations presented in a peer-reviewed study published in a respected science journal”?. They don’t play by the rules, why should you? Especially when the truth is on your side. Methane is a very potent GHG, and we don’t need any more of it being released

            And you are employing some faulty logic here when you say: “The FACT that other warnings and predictions were subsequently ‘proven’ to be well founded is neither here nor there. Until they were ‘proven’ they were – like the ‘vast’ plumes of methane meme – simply that – warnings and predictions”. Why do you refuse to accept the implications of what Peter and Dr. Box and I say here, as well as the links from redskylite? Why do you not accept that virtually everything we learn as we study climate change more intensively is turning our to be bad news? And consistently worse news than it first appeared to be? Do you never operate inituitively?

            You are most definitely whistling past the graveyard to say the ‘vast’ plumes of methane releases may be signalling “absolutely nothing”. All you have to do is look at the interwoven web of data regarding methane plumes from the seabed, dark snow, reduced albedo , warming oceans, melting permafrost, and the melting Greenland ice sheet. Throw in the concept of “runaway positive feedback” and you should arrive at the same place Dr. Box has reached with methane—“IF…., then we’re F**D”

        • Don’t you realize that’s what these Dark Snow projects are FOR? To study the effects.

    • redskylite Says:

      On the subject of “vast plumes of methane” spotted in around the Laptev Sea, this report states that scientists have been studying the area for nearly 20 years, and at the end of 2011 first observed the methane. Was it occurring before, well it was not observed and of course there was a covering of thick sea ice. I attach an “Independent” news report of the incident although I am sure Dr Igor Semiletov and Natalia Shakhova have published their findings with peer review.

  8. Gingerbaker Says:

    In reply to Engineer-Poet:

    Oops – you are right, I am wrong. I ( actually wikipedia) made an arithmetic error. Vernon has only exceeded its original design spec by two years, not ten.

    And I am not seeing conspirators under every tree – I am responding to what I perceive as your contention that the NRC’s trustworthiness is sacrosanct.

    Again, let me point out that the NYT article makes it clear that I am not alone on that point – the new NRC attorney general made that point! And he did it because the NRC is still filled with bureaucrats from the AEC, who had a mission which included the positive promotion of the nuclear industry.

    You have to remember that I live in Vermont. The people of Vermont, its legislators, and its Governor wanted the aging facility to be shut down. Entergy, Vernon’s corporate owner, sued (and won) to keep it running over our objections by arguing that nuclear plants are under Federal jurisdiction, and not subject to State law.

    Do you see how creepy that is? And why the issue of safety and adherence to the original design safety parameters, and the fact that they no longer apply to Federal jurisdiction, is EXTREMELY concerning to the people who live a stone’s throw away from a Fukushima-design nuclear plant

    I have refrained from listing all the documented problems with the plant – but they include things like radiation leaking from corroded pipes – pipes Entergy argued did not need to to be up to original spec, but whose walls only needed to be 1/10 as thick as original. Because the rest of the wall thickness was lost to corrosion! And that is OK, according to the NRC!

    This is a plant whose cooling water pumps failed during a shut down, and were not replaced. A plant which had a section of a cooling tower collapse. Then its repair failed. Pictures here:

    High-pressure safety coolant injections systems failed multiple tests before they were repaired by Entergy. The reactor scrams at 62% power because 3 of 4 turbine valves failed to function properly due to “ a lack of preventative maintenance”. Here is a list of irregularities just since Entergy bought the place:

    Click to access vermont-yankee-timeline-incid.pdf

    From th Montague Record:

    “In 1972, even as Vermont Yankee went critical, Dr. Stephen Hanuaer, the top safety official at the Atomic Energy Commission (pre-NRC), recommended that the Mark I pressure suppression system be discontinued and any Mark I designs not be approved for construction. A 1985 NRC report analyzing the containment system concluded that “the Mark I failure within the first few hours following a core melt would appear rather likely.” In 1986 Harold Denton, the NRC’s top safety official, told an industry trade group that the Mark I had “something like a 90% probability of containment failure,” in the event of such an accident. Mark I reactor owners responded by jury-rigging a manual pressure relief valve, operated by, and contingent on, the men in the control room. [NIRS, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, 1997]

    “Significant circumferential cracking has been discovered at Vermont Yankee,” the NRC wrote (1996), in a report evaluating the threat of a meltdown due to reactor core shroud fracture. [Status Report: Intergranular Corrosion Cracking of BWR Core Shrouds and Other Internal Components, NUREG-1544, May 1996: p. xv]

    “The reactor pressure vessel, the core shroud, condenser, feedwater and recirculation pumps — all these major components have not been replaced,” says Ray Shadis. [Shadis is not from the NRC, but from a citizen group against nuclear power. He has “served on a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel to assess that agency’s Reactor Oversight Process”] “Parts replaced over the last 31 years are also getting old. The engineering analyses for retrofits are not always as good as for the originals, and the original analyses weren’t that good to begin with.”

    ” “At the beginning of 2003, Vermont Yankee notified the NRC that one of the safety components on one of their valves was inoperable, that they had to shutdown the plant. Five days later they wrote the NRC that upon examination they didn’t have that safety feature at all. It’s a very complicated machine. They haven’t got a clue.”

    ““The NRC has a history of operating as a rogue agency, and in the service of the people they are supposed to be regulating,” says Shadis, who references an internal NRC poll showing that even NRC staff have little confidence in the NRC to oversee reactor safety.

    Still feel confident that the NRC and Vermont Yankee are 100% trustworthy?

    Of course, this is all moot. Entergy announced they are shutting down Vermont Yankee for good – supposedly because it could no longer produce electricity cheaply enough to compete in the market!!!

  9. How did we go from ice in Greenland to nuclear in Vermont?

    • Phillip Shaw Says:

      The thread got derailed because E-P is the personification of the old adage “If your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails”. No matter what the issue, E-P states it could be improved/overcome/mitigated if only we had more nukes. I wonder if he has a tattoo that reads “Fission is my Mission!”.

      • If I had any tattoos, one would probably read “Manure is renewable, and vice versa”.

      • As boring as the energizer bunny is long lasting. Off topic is one of the definitions of troll. It’s simply anti social behavior. We are discussing dark snow, an important topic, one that Peter has devoted a lot of personal time and effort into. It be hooves us to honor that with respect and show support. Dark snow is one of the possible positive feedbacks and I am watching this carefully. This subject should be used to accelerate efforts towards reducing carbon and convincing nations to eliminate FF use.

    • Vermont is upwind of Greenland, and nuclear emits neither CO2 nor soot.  The rest, my dear Watson, is elementary.

  10. […] recent widely reposted Slate piece on Dark Snow Project, reported with some context here, was just a drop in a tidal wave of media coverage that’s been breaking since midsummer, and […]

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