Canadian fires and the Dark Snow effort


An aerial view of the Birch Creek Fire complex, which seared 250,000 acres as of Wednesday. Credit: NWTFire/Facebook/

A large number of uncontrolled fires are burning across the Canadian NWT. The prevailing flow brings some of that smoke to darken Greenland ice.


Example of one day last week of fires detected from NASA satellite thermal imagery. Analysis by Jason Box as part of the Dark Snow project

via Brian Kahn of Climate Central

“The amount of acres burned in the Northwest Territories is six times greater than the 25-year average to-date according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

Boreal forests like those in the Northwest Territories are burning at rates “unprecedented” in the past 10,000 years according to the authors of a study put out last year. The northern reaches of the globe are warming at twice the rate as areas closer to the equator, and those hotter conditions are contributing to more widespread burns.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark climate report released earlier this year indicates that for every 1.8°F rise in temperatures, wildfire activity is expected to double.

We have a team on Greenland ice right now, and until mid August, tasked with measuring the impact of dark particles on ice melt. We are asking for support to increase our abilities to detect smoke landing on Greenland ice. The support will help us afford expanding our laboratory work.


first data makes it off Camp Dark Snow

Phase 1 of our field  program began 18 June with the camp installation and getting into a rhythm with ground and airborne measurements.

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drone view of cook and science tents

A re-supply flight rotated in fresh people and food while Jason and Marek rotated out until their 1 August return for the final weeks of our the 2 month field science campaign.

2014 06 28 132310

from left to right: Nathan Chrismas, Marek Stibal, Karen Cameron, Martyn Law, Alia Khan, Oysten Bornholm (pilot), Jason Box, and Filippo Qaglia

After the usual uphill struggle that is field work, a most welcome feeling of satisfaction came after successful flights with the UAV copter.

launching copter with down looking video calibrated using the white reference target

Jason Box launching UAV copter with down looking video calibrated using the white reference target lower right.

Ice biologists were busy gathering cell counts and I can tell you, the results are telling us we’re not wasting out time out on the ice.

Dr Marek Stibal gathers ice algae samples.

Dr Marek Stibal gathers ice algae samples.

Dr Karen Cameron measures spectral reflectance of ice all around our camp.

Dr Karen Cameron measures spectral reflectance of ice all around our camp.

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Dr. Jason Box measures reflectivity of ice algae and other snow and ice impurities.

We’re still running our crowd funding campaign because we lack

  1. some travel funds
  2. funds to do some of the lab processing
  3. funding for advancing our drone objectives.

We ask you to join us and help our science happen with a US tax deductible pledge.

2014 Greenland ice sheet reflectivity near record low

The NASA MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite provides surface reflectivity data since early 2000 enabling us to evaluate just how dark Greenland ice is today and in comparison with the past 14 years.

The data show that 2014 ice sheet reflectivity (also called albedo) has been near record low much of 2014, especially at the highest elevations.


15 years of albedo data for the uppermost region of the ice sheet

The darkness of the surface at high elevations is consistent with the findings of Dumont et al. (2014) that an increasing dust concentration on the ice sheet in the pre-melt season from decreasing snow cover on land upwind of the ice sheet may be a significant darkening factor.

If there will be a persistent pattern of warm air brought over the ice sheet as in 2012, we should expect melting at the ice sheet upper elevations. Why? Low reflectivity heats the snow more than normal, removing more of the ‘cold content’. A dark snow cover will thus melt earlier and more intensely. A positive feedback exists for snow in which once melting begins, the surface gets yet darker due to increased liquid water content, increased snow grain size, and possible other factors such as microbial growth.

For the ice sheet as a whole, low reflectivity in 2014 has been exceeded only by years 2012, 2013, and 2011, depending on the time of year…


15 years of albedo data for the entire ice sheet and peripheral glaciers

The Greenland reflectivity anomaly map features red and orange colors that indicate a relatively dark surface near the end of June especially at the low elevations where most melting occurs.

albedo anomaly map

albedo anomaly map. For more, see

Work Cited

  1. Dumont, M., E. Brun, G. Picard, M. Michou, Q. Libois, J-R. Petit, M. Geyer, S. Morin and B. Josse, Contribution of light-absorbing impurities in snow to Greenland’s darkening since 2009, Nature Geoscience, 8 June, 2014, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2180

take off today for camping on ice 2 months

Today, we plan a 1315h take off from Kangerlussuaq (SFJ), west Greenland to our science camp that should run 2 months.

We have moved our target camp location 6 nm closer to SFJ to a place called S6; -49.3989154, 67.0784848, or in decimal minutes 49° 23.935′W, 67° 4.709′N, 1011 m above sea level.

S6 is 38 nautical miles from SFJ or ~21 minunute one-way fly time at 110 kt.

Reasons for the move:

  • We have judged that S6 us better for our science to start at snowline that is today just at or below S6. Snow line had been moving fast up glacier in the past 5 days but with snow last night and clouds and more snow in the forecast, we believe our science is best to start in these conditions.
  • According to the pilot, above S6 may not be land-able by the S61 that lands not on skids but relatively small wheels.
  • budget projection motivate us to work closer to the airport, with each flight saving 12 nautical miles. The relatively expensive S61 helicopter is the only reliable option for us in SFJ.
  • S6 has a long climate record, beginning in the 1990s.

Sikorsky S61 helicopter is fully loaded for our camp put in

While on camp, we may be reached by email using with a maximum 250 kb message size filter that will block your message.

For phone communications, ring us at Iridium:
primary +88 162 143 3943
secondary +88 162 143 3944

Have an ice day!

The Dark Snow science team

west Greenland melt is ON

Weather was very warm yesterday in Kangerlussuaq, at least 15 C (60 F) but 20 C (70 F) at the unofficial airport site. The river came up fast and wide between our 10 AM first look to the late afternoon; 24 h sun here on the Arctic circle. The snowline is migrating up the ice sheet. It seems we arrived right on the start of continuous melt. The previous days have had variable weather and even fresh snow on hilltops.

The melt is ON. The extended forecast is for warm sunny weather…

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 8.23.18 AMThe warm weather is a relief because right now, snowline is ~850 m above sea level. We aim to camp at 1250 m and don’t want to arrive to slush deeper than our ankles.

The precipitation forecast for next Wednesday would come the night of our camp put in. We’d rather have snow than rain. But the freezing level in the atmosphere would be right at camp elevation, so it would be a ‘wintery mix’.


Dark Snow, the dust factor and the 2014 melt season onset

A new study[1] finds that the snow albedo feedback by snow grain growth alone is insufficient to explain the observed decrease in the springtime Greenland ice sheet reflectivity. They propose a theory that “recent warming in the Arctic has induced an earlier disappearance of the seasonal snow cover, uncovering large areas of bare soil and thus enhancing dust erosion”. The vigorous late winter wind would take the dust to Greenland.

Year 2014 Greenland upper elevations ice reflectivity has been at record low values much of 2014 so far, and in recent years, consistent with the conclusions of Dumont et al. (2014). See the blue line; year 2014.


Year 2014 Greenland upper elevations ice reflectivity has been at record low values much of 2014 so far, consistent with the conclusions of Dumont et al. (2014) for recent years. See the blue line (year 2014) in March.

2014 is on track for a big melt year at the upper elevations. What could shut this down would be heavy snowfall there. For the ice sheet as a whole, 2014 reflectivity has been trending near the low side of past observations since 2000. Is this the early spring dust factor? More springtime dust certainly is a factor. What will determine how much punch the 2014 melt season delivers depends a lot on temperatures and atmospheric circulation in the month of June. Here we go.


What’s been driving the low reflectivity anomaly for the ice sheet the past 10 days is melting concentrated along the southeast ice sheet. Note the red areas below.


Greenland ice albedo anomaly we are posting at Note the red, orange and yellow areas along the southeast ice sheet. The melt story so far for June is the southeast. It’s been since 2006 that this was the high melt story.

I’m today on my way to Greenland, to the western ice sheet, to camp there in the blue area of the map where there appears to be above average snow depth, contributing to the positive reflectivity anomaly. We may well have to put the camp in at a lower elevation where melt is more advanced because this extra half meter of melting snow, a.k.a. slush would be most unpleasant to camp in/on. Wish us luck.

Works Cited

  1. Dumont, M., E. Brun, G. Picard, M. Michou, Q. Libois, J-R. Petit, M. Geyer, S. Morin and B. Josse, Contribution of light-absorbing impurities in snow to Greenland’s darkening since 2009, Nature Geoscience, 8 June, 2014, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2180

Dark Snow feedback animation from Joe Immen


After seeing graphic artist Joe Immen’s Climate Hawk logo, I approached him to develop the Dark Snow logo. Here are some photos I shot on our first meeting as Joe sketched the first Dark Snow logos…

Joe Immen at work

Joe Immen sketching the first Dark Snow logo back in October, 2012

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 5.14.47 PMFrom that discussion came the following logo of several others…

Dark Snow logo fire-Greenland map3

Joe Immen lives in Columbus, Ohio.



No black magic, Dark Snow really matters

A new study, independent of the Dark Snow Project, validates our hypothesis, that black carbon can accelerate Greenland Ice sheet melt.

The study, in Proceedings to the National Academy of Sciences (Keegan et al. 2014) finds that black carbon from wildfires facilitated widespread Greenland ice sheet surface melting in just two years since the end of the 19th century: 1889 and 2012. They argue convincingly that not just warm temperatures, but the positive feedback with black carbon and surface solar heating can push the surface energy balance into net heating and ice melt. Further, the likelihood for future increases in air temperature and wildfire boosts the probability of high altitude former “dry snow area” surface melting by end of century to every few years, if not even more frequently, they conclude.

Dark Snow Project

The Dark Snow Project’s first goal was sampling of the 2012 summer melt layer to answer if and by how much black carbon from wildfire and industrial sources played an important role in the widespread 2012 July surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

After a successful crowd funding campaign, on 8 July, 2013 at the southern Greenland ice sheet topographic divide, we extracted several snow/ice cores through the 2012 melt layer as part of ‘lean and mean’ helicopter mission. Frozen samples were then transported to the Snow Optic Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where McKenzie Skiles, present at the coring, painstakingly measured the black carbon concentrations.

We find black carbon concentrations equivalent with the peak values in Keegan et al. (2104), around 14 parts per billion (equivalent with nano grams per gram). We had 3 samples with concentrations above 12 ppb.


Dark Snow Project black carbon measurements from Greenland’s southern topographic divide.

Our first results, described at the Dec. 2013 AGU meeting implied, as Keegan et al. (2014) confirm, that the cumulative effect of small absolute black carbon concentrations can produce sufficient increases in absorbed sunlight to enable surface melting.

In 2012, after publishing a measurement of the Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback, that did not explicitly include black carbon, as my home state of Colorado underwent record setting wildfires, I realized there was more to the story…

Where there is fire, there is smoke!

Wildfire, increasing with climate change [123], deposits increasing amounts of light-absorbing black carbon [soot] on the cryosphere [snow and ice], multiplying the existing heat-driven ice-reflectivity feedback [a.k.a. albedo feedback].

Sifting through data from NASA’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) revealed smoke clouds near, over, and even in contact with Greenland.

The discovery was reported widely 123456789 .

The science Continues

We’re gearing up for a June-August 2014 intensive field campaign designed to further this science. In addition to continued investigation of black carbon, we are bringing new focus to analyze the darkening effect of microbes.   Glacier and ice sheet biologist Dr. Marek Stibal will be gathering data on the increasingly pronounced effects of microbial and algal growth on the warming ice sheet.

As larger and larger ares of Greenland become subject to summer melt, more liquid water, a key limiting factor for microbial growth, is available on the ice sheet. In addition, Dr. Stibal and Dr. Karen Cameron will be examining whether fertilizing factors, such as nitrous oxide from industrial processes, may be encouraging additional biological activity on the ice sheet.

In a recent Dark Snow posting, Dr. Stibal noted that organisms on the ice produce dark pigments to shield themselves from intense sun, as well as other functions.

it is a sunscreen, a protection against the harmful UV radiation and also excessive visible radiation which can inhibit photosynthesis in the cells. But that’s not all. The pigment may also represent a sink for surplus energy that cannot be invested in cells due to limitations in temperature or nutrient availability, and may even act as a chemical defense against grazers as, for example, phenolic compounds in marine kelp. So, given the nuisances you have to put up with as an alga living on the surface of an ice sheet, it seems like a very useful thing to have.

Recent published science makes ever clearer that sea level rise from melting ice sheets will become a critical impact of climate change sooner than was imagined just a few years ago.  In that light, the continuing research of Dark Snow Project to quantify additional contributing factors has never been more important.

Works Cited

  • Box, J. E., X. Fettweis, J.C. Stroeve, M. Tedesco, D.K. Hall, and K. Steffen. 2012. Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: thermodynamics and atmospheric drivers, The Cryosphere, 6, 821-839. doi:10.5194/tc-6-821-2012
    Doherty, S. J., T. C. Grenfell, S. Forsström, D. L. Hegg, R. E. Brandt, and S. G. Warren. 2013. Observed vertical redistribution of black carbon and other insoluble light-absorbing particles in melting snow, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 118, 5553–5569, doi:10.1002/jgrd.50235.
  • Mack, M. C., M. S. Bret-Harte, T. N. Hollingsworth, R. R. Jandt, E. A. G. Schuur, G. R. Shaver, and D. L. Verbyla. 2011. Carbon loss from an unprecedented Arctic tundra wildfire. Nature 475:489–492. doi:10.1038/nature10283
  • Keegan, K.M., M.R. Albert, J.R. McConnell, and I. Baker. 2014. Climate change and forest fires synergistically drive widespread melt events of the Greenland Ice Sheet, Proceedings to the National Academy of Sciences, May 19, 2014,

Camp Dark Snow 2014

At last, Camp Dark Snow 2014 has a date (17 June) and a location; 42 nautical miles east of Kangerlussuaq on the southwestern Greenland ice sheet, at an elevation 1250 m above sea level.
Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 2.13.39 PM
Here each summer the ice melts down 1.48 m on average since 2008, only 0.3 m in 2009; and  2.1 m in the record melt year of 2012 (data after Fausto et al. 2012). This location is host to the @Promice_GL “KAN_M” climate station.

Dirk van As maintains the KAN_M climate station in the pre-melt of 2013
When we start the camp, there will be some residual winter snow on ice, how much, hard to predict, though we can see below that southwest Greenland has had this year 30-50% of normal precipitation. If this drought keeps up, we’ll see an earlier than normal bare ice emergence and higher than normal melt.
precipitation difference from normal according to an observationally constrained atmospheric circulation model. Brown isolines indicate less than average precipitation. The contour interval is 10, 30, 50, 70, 100, 110, 120, 150 percent.
Late June when we should put in our camp, there will be snow and slush in some areas until the snow is gone. Ideally, we have both snow and bare ice when we set the camp. The Digital Globe image below depicts what the surface would look like by say mid July once the snow cover is gone.
Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 11.19.49 AM
spacing between the melt ponds is 800 m (2300 ft)

Our field experiments, to be elaborated further in future posts, include documenting the importance of dust, black carbon, and microbes in snow and ice melt.

The field team so far includes:

  • Drs. Marek Stibal video; Karen Cameron; and Prof. Jason Box of Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS)
  • Prof. Martyn Tranter; University of Bristol in England
  • Drs. Arwyn Edward; Tristram Irvine-Fynn, a video; Alun Hubbard, a video of the University of Aberystwyth in Wales
  • Dr. Joseph Cook of the University of Derby in England
  • Alia Khan, blog of the University of Boulder, CO, USA
  • media specialist Peter Sinclair, a video
  • media specialist Dr. Sara Jones, a video

It is by pooling resources among these groups that we can do more/better science and get the science message out.

Work Cited

  • Fausto R. S., D. Van As and PROMICE Project Team (2012), Ablation observations for 2008-2011 from the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE). In Bennike O, Garde AA and Watt WS eds. Review of survey activities 2011. GEUS, Copenhagen, 25-28 (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland Bulletin 26).