Dark Snow Project probes relationship between wildfires and Arctic melt

Dr. Jason Box, lower right, is asking for public donations to finance a research trip to Greenland to study the impact of wildfire ash on Arctic albedo. Photo: meltwater.org In 2012, the Greenland ice sheet experienced extraordinary ice melt during an unusually warm period in mid-July. Coupled with other geologic events, like a large calving event on the Petermann Glacier, the melting has scientists questioning the dynamics at play and the potential consequences.


One of those scientists is Jason Box, from the Byrd Polar Research Center. As reports of 90 percent of Greenland’s surface thawing last July captured headlines, Box saw a potential correlation between the unusually warm Arctic weather and the wildfires ravaging the West. It was one of the worst fire seasons on record. In addition to blazes in Colorado, New Mexico, and California, tundra fires burned huge expanses in Alaska and Canada.

Box modeled the weather patterns during those events and showed that smoke from the fires passed over the Greenland icesheet. He hypothesized that ash and soot from the smoke fell to the ice sheet and darkened it, which altered its ability to reflect sunlight.

He wanted to study the relationship between wildfires and Arctic ice melt, and figured he'd need about $150,000. Such funding was not immediately available.

Rather than scrape the research, Box, who has been the recipient of many  grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and other agencies in the past and who has worked in Greenland since the mid-1990s, decided to raise the money himself.

For the past year, he’s been leading a fundraising effort to finance a research trip to Greenland this summer.

He calls it the Dark Snow project, and Box plans to sample ice cores and study whether wildfires are responsible for the widespread melting in 2012 in Greenland.

He’s raised slightly more than half of the desired $150,000. Much of that will pay air transport to and from the ice sheet for Box and his team. At least two journalists plan to document the trip, including Bill McKibben, who wrote about Box in the August 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Box told PBS Newshour that raising the money on his own has been challenging but that it comes with certain advantages.

"There's fewer strings and less structure, which gives you an advantage to try edgier and riskier research," Box said, adding that he sees the Dark Snow Project as a pilot study. If the team succeeds and publishes their findings, it could lead to a government grant to fund further research.

Snow's reflectivity, also known as albedo, decreases as white snow melts because water is darker and absorbs more of the sun's energy. Soot generated by wildfires and/or industrial emissions that is deposited on the ice can further reduce albedo; dirty snow melts faster than white snow.

Since unveiling his project at last December’s American Geophysical Union meeting, Box has gotten steady support. His research team includes four scientists and a creative team. Stay tuned as we update you periodically on the progress of the Dark Snow Project.  —Rachel Walker