fire, ice, soot, carbon: Dark Snow Project 2014 final field work in Greenland

Arrived yesterday to Kangerlussuaq, west Greenland, now 6 AM, we’re just about out the door in effort to put more numbers on how fire and other factors are affecting Greenland’s reflectivity as part of the Dark Snow Project.

I just received this 27 July, 2014 NASA MODIS satellite image showing wildfire smoke drifting over Greenland ice.

Premier climate video blogger Peter Sinclair is a key component of the Dark Snow Project because of our focus on communicating our science to the global audience. The video below was shot and edited last night quickly as we prepare for a return to our camp a few hours from now.

The video does not comment on the important issue of carbon. So, here’s a quick research wrap-up… Wildfire is a source of carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon to the atmosphere. Jacobson (2014) find that sourcing to be underestimated in earlier work. Graven et al. (2013) find northern forests absorbing and releasing more carbon by respiration due to Arctic warming’s effects on forest composition change. At the global scale, the land environment produces a net sink of carbon, taking up some 10% of the atmospheric carbon emissions due to fossil fuel combustion (IPCC, 2007). Yet, whether northern wildfire is becoming an important source of atmospheric carbon (whether from CO2 or CH4 methane) remains under investigation. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers find:

“fires shift the carbon balance in multiple ways. Burning organic matter quickly releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. After a fire, loss of the forest canopy can allow more sun to reach and warm the ground, which may speed decomposition and carbon dioxide emission from the soil. If the soil warms enough to melt underlying permafrost, even more stored carbon may be unleashed.

“Historically, scientists believe the boreal forest has acted as a carbon sink, absorbing more atmospheric carbon dioxide than it releases, Gower says. Their model now suggests that, over recent decades, the forest has become a smaller sink and may actually be shifting toward becoming a carbon source.

“The soil is the major source, the plants are the major sink, and how those two interplay over the life of a stand really determines whether the boreal forest is a sink or a source of carbon

Works Cited
  • Danish Meterological Institute provided the NASA MODIS satellite image
  • Graven, H.D., R. F. Keeling, S. C. Piper, P. K. Patra, B. B. Stephens, S. C. Wofsy, L. R. Welp, C. Sweeney, P.P. Tans, J.J. Kelley, B.C. Daube, E.A. Kort, G.W. Santoni, J.D. Bent, 2013, Enhanced Seasonal Exchange of CO2 by Northern Ecosystems Since 1960,  Science: Vol. 341 no. 6150 pp. 1085-1089, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239207
  • Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis, IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
  • Jacobson, M. Z., 2014, Effects of biomass burning on climate, accounting for heat and moisture fluxes, black and brown carbon, and cloud absorption effects, J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 119, doi:10.1002/2014JD021861.

Canadian fires and the Dark Snow effort

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

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

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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.

 

Whodunit? Glacier Crime Scene Investigation in the Himalaya

High up in the Himalaya, it lurks. It is hard to spot with the naked eye. Yet we see the damage it leaves in its wake. No, this is not the elusive Himalayan yeti (though I do have camera traps set out). Rather, I am referring to black carbon or soot – resulting from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, as well as biofuels and biomass – which deposits on snow and ice in the Himalaya. These dark particles absorb sunlight, warming snow and ice, leading to faster glacier mass loss.  These particles are smaller than a strand of hair. Small but mighty, so it seems. Yet, black carbon isn’t the only culprit. Locally and regionally derived dust also can impact snow melt. While dust is a natural occurrence on the planet, recent land use changes, such as road and trail construction can add to the amount. Thus, it is important to consider the combined effect of soot and dust.

As in the Arctic, dark particles on Himalayan snow are a concern as they lead to enhanced heating, melting and sublimation. While melting ice on Greenland can directly contribute to sea level increases, in the Himalaya ice loss affects people on a more local and regional scale – by disrupting water resources, as well as cutting off climbing routes. The Nepalese Himalaya are home to eight of the world’s 8000-meter peaks. As climate continues to change and conditions become more treacherous for climbing, this may affect the local communities who rely on trekkers and mountaineers for income.

Smog visible from Everest base camp, April 2014.

Smog visible from Everest base camp, April 2014.

From October 2013 – end of May 2014, my team and I collected snow samples across the Khumbu valley in the Everest region (eastern part of Nepal), including Island Peak, Lobuche East, Khumbu glacier, Ngozumpa glacier, Cho La and Renjo La. In central Nepal, we collected samples from Annapurna South and Mt. Himlung in the remote NarPhu valley, on the border with Tibet. Out in the field, the technique is straight-forward: wash your hands (or ice axe) in the snow first, then collect a gallon-size bag of snow from the top few centimeters and the subsurface. The former represents dry deposition from the air while the latter represents deposition in the last snowfall event. You then quickly come back down to camp to melt the samples and run the water through filters, capturing pollutants and other contaminants, which later are analyzed in the lab. The technique I am using was developed by Dr. Carl Schmitt at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, with whom I am collaborating (http://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/just-published/8856/measuring-pollutants-andean-glaciers).  He developed this while working with the American Climber Science Program throughout the Cordillera Blanca in Peru (http://climberscience.wordpress.com).

Sampling snow at 20,150 ft. on Lobuche East, Khumbu valley, Nepal.

Sampling snow at 20,150 ft. on Lobuche East, Khumbu valley, Nepal.

Preliminary results show a dominance in relative mass concentration of dust in samples, with particularly high levels of black carbon/dust in more frequented regions such as the high mountain passes and climbing peak high camps. Whodunit? Well, that’s more complicated, but a few suspects are in custody:

  • dust from eroding trails at the lower altitudes, due to frequent human and animal traffic during the high trekking seasons in the autumn and spring
  • black carbon from wildfires
  • soot from yak dung burning stoves in local villages
  • dust from road construction in Kathmandu
  • black carbon from diesel-belching buses and trucks
  • soot from brick factories, though farther geographically, may be carried to the mountains by the wind.
Dark snow on Mt. Himlung, on-route between Camps 1 and 2 (~18,000 ft.).

Dark snow on Mt. Himlung, on-route between Camps 1 and 2 (~18,000 ft.).

It is clear we are dealing with anthropogenic changes and that needs to be addressed at the local and national government levels. Understanding the sources better and developing mitigation efforts where possible will be key, as well as understanding the effects on the water supply in the region in order to facilitate adaptation.

Acknowledgments Funding for my work includes: National Science Foundation (NSF); USAID; the US Fulbright Program; Geological Society of America (GSA); the Explorers Club; National Snow and Ice Data Center’s (NSIDC) CHARIS project; Rice Space Institute; and individual sponsors/donors through the University of Colorado Boulder and crowd-funding from Petrishdish.org and Rockethub.com.

Team members: Passang Nuru Sherpa, Kami Sherpa, Ang Tendi Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Dr. John All, Jake St. Pierre, Chris Cosgriff, David Byrne, Marty Coleman, Michael Coote

 

 

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.

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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.

2500-3200m_Greenland_Ice_Sheet_Reflectivity

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…

0-3200m_Greenland_Ice_Sheet_Reflectivity

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 http://polarportal.dk/en/groenlands-indlandsis/nbsp/isens-overflade/

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.
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Sikorsky S61 helicopter is fully loaded for our camp put in

While on camp, we may be reached by email using darksnow@onsatmail.com 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.

2500-3200m_Greenland_Ice_Sheet_Reflectivity

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.

0-3200m_Greenland_Ice_Sheet_Reflectivity

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.

Alb_LA_EN_20140606

Greenland ice albedo anomaly we are posting at polarportal.dk. 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

Cyanobacteria: Harnessing light to grow

As an evolutionary biologist, I am particularly fascinated by microbial life that manages to survive in frozen environments. Among the most important groups of organisms found on the Greenland ice sheet are the cyanobacteria. Along with ice algae these are the plants of the ice sheet, performing oxygenic photosynthesis and generating organic carbon helping to link the microbial food web.

While the ice surface tends to be dominated by algae (although some filamentous cyanobacteria can be seen (Yallop et al., 2012)), cryoconite holes are a different matter where a whole host of cyanobacteria can be found. Cryoconite holes are formed by aggregations of ‘rock dust’ reducing local albedo and forming tiny pools of meltwater full of microbial activity. Cryoconite granules are held together by a matrix of filamentous cyanobacteria and the extracellular polysaccharides (EPS) that they exude. Unicellular species are embedded within the cryoconite matrix. I am interested in finding out just what these species of cyanobacteria are, when they evolved to live in the cold, and what kind of adaptations have allowed them to survive and carry out efficient photosynthesis in such extreme conditions.

Cyanobacteria on the Greenland ice sheet – a) cryoconite holes, b) filamentous cyanobacteria sticking out of a cryoconite granule and c) fluorescence microscope image of cryoconite showing cyanobacteria (red) and extracellular polysaccharides (green). From Yallop et al., 2012.

Cyanobacteria on the Greenland ice sheet – a) cryoconite holes, b) filamentous cyanobacteria sticking out of a cryoconite granule and c) fluorescence microscope image of cryoconite showing cyanobacteria (red) and extracellular polysaccharides (green). From Yallop et al., 2012.

Another important question involves the relationship that cyanobacteria might have with the dark snow. If excess black carbon were to cause an increase in heterotrophic bacterial consumption of carbon from external sources instead of carbon fixed by the cyanobacteria (like in the cryoconite holes of Svalbard: see Stibal et al., 2008), then the community composition of the microbial ecosystem may be altered. Cyanobacteria may also interact directly with the black carbon by either increasing the amount of time black carbon spends on the ice, masking it with organic material, drawing it into cryoconite holes or even breaking the black carbon down (Hodson, 2014). Whichever way, the cyanobacteria of the Greenland ice sheet have an undeniable influence on the fate of carbon – which both builds life and accelerates melting – on glacier surfaces, and they remain fascinating organisms for helping to understand the evolution of life in the cold.

References

Hodson AJ. Understanding the dynamics of black carbon and associated contaminants in glacial systems. WIREs Water. 2014 Mar 1;1(2):141–9.

Stibal M, Tranter M, Benning LG, ?ehák J. Microbial primary production on an Arctic glacier is insignificant in comparison with allochthonous organic carbon input. Environmental Microbiology. 2008 Aug 1;10(8):2172–8.

Yallop ML, Anesio AM, Perkins RG, Cook J, Telling J, Fagan D, et al. Photophysiology and albedo-changing potential of the ice algal community on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet. ISME J. 2012 Dec;6(12):2302–13.