We believe gathering measurements from the surface of Greenland ice is fundamental to advancing our understanding of the melting Arctic.

We inform the global public what's happening in this remote but important place.

Dark Snow Touches Down in Greenland for 2015 Season

Peter Sinclair is sitting in the cafe at the airstrip in Kangerlussuaq, the main port of entry for most folks coming in to Greenland. I believe this is the only place with daily, year round service from Europe – a single “Mothership” Airbus 330, making the run daily from Copenhagen.  There’s a lot of patchy snow in the vicinity – forgot May is still pretty cold here, having come from blossom time in Scandanavia.

immediately ran into microbiologist Marek Stibal, who is already here camping not far away, taking sediment samples to flesh out the picture of biological activity on the ice.

In about 90 minutes I’ll take another hop to Ilulissat, site of a major Arctic conference next week, where I hope to catch up with a number of very active scientists.  Jason Box is an organizer of the event, and we’ll join up in a few days.

My task this summer is to get as many interviews as possible, as well as shoot a lot of additional footage – and to that end, I’ll be staying in some visually stunning places – Ilulissat for one, and in a week, a place called Uummannaq.

More on this later, once I get settled in Ilulissat.


2015 Dark Snow Science Expedition Takes Shape

Our cause to inform the global public what’s happening in the remote but important Arctic leads us to our third Greenland science expedition taking shape.

Building on our past experience, our work this summer is to continue flying UAV missions over Greenland ice, across an elevation profile to track the darkness of the bare ice area expanding as snowline climbs the ice sheet. Our UAV range this year is 4 times what it was last year, 200 km+! We’re flying higher end instruments over the ice dark ice fields, sheet’s blue lakes, river networks, moulins and crevasses, producing unprecedented visual and science material.

We’ve got two scientific papers in late stages of progress, finding that melt is amplified by not only fire activity but surface ice algae. Another surprising twist is to be released in a study nearing submission for publication in a top journal.

In a strong affirmation of the support from nearly 800 pledges, that has made possible Greenland expeditions in 2013 and 2014, we’ve secured funding for much of this year’s activity from a well known foundation who’s identity will may share soon.

What remains on our wish list for 2015…

  1. support for a Dark Snow videographer Peter Sinclair’s travel to an important Greenland climate science meeting 2-5 June and continue north to Uummannaq Polar Institute for interviews with Greenlanders, $3k
  2. science tent to house our scientists at work, $1.8k
  3. each UAV flight is to have two video cameras on it recording 30 frames per sec to document the surface changes through time in better than HD resolution, $1.4k.
  4. after running our camp for 1 month on land, next to ice, 10 June – 7 July, it is advantageous to reposition the camp onto ice, following snowline inland on the ice sheet, to reoccupy at the same location as last year. For this we’re looking for another $12k for helicopter charter.

Your support has brought awareness of our science that was amplified by major network TV (HBO Vice, HBO Bill Maher, NBC Ann Curry, The Weather Channel, BBC, and more), print media (Rolling Stone) and online media (NASA, Outside, The Guardian, Slate, more than 50 news pieces).

Here’s our link to US tax deductible support using any normal credit/debit card hosted by PalPal.

Return supporters, on request, will receive a high quality decals. On request, pledges above $2.5 k will receive Greenlandic designed sun glasses.

sticker glasses

Have an ice day!

the Dark Snow team


BLACK and BLOOM: Microbial processes darken and accelerate the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

The UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has funded a consortium of UK scientist to work together with their international collaborators on issues related to why the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is accelerating. Global warming alone is not enough to account for the increasingly rapid melting of the ice sheet. Other factors are darkening the ice sheet surface, which results in greater rates of melting. The main focus of this large research project is based on our hypothesis that microbes thrive and bloom on melting snow and ice surfaces, and darken the ice sheet surface as a consequence.

Life exists wherever there is liquid water on the Earth’s surface, and ice sheet surfaces are no exception (see Figures 1). Just one drop of ice melt contains up to 10,000 microbes. Many of these are tiny organisms have green chlorophyll, similar to plants, to capture sunlight and grow va photosynthesis. They also develop their own dark-coloured sun block, often coloured red, purple or brown, which protects them from damage by the fierce sunlight which shines for 24 hr per day in the height of the Arctic summer. The microbes can turn the surface of the ice sheet purple to black when they multiply rapidly and bloom, which means that the ice sheet surface warms and melts much faster than if the surface were white and lifeless. Microbiologists have long known that snow is discoloured by the growth of snow algae. Indeed, water melon snow looks and smells like water melons. It is only recently that microbiologists have shown that dark-coloured microorganisms grow in melting ice.


Figure 1. Examples of coloured snow algae from the Greenland Ice Sheet [1]. Clean, fresh snow has an albedo of ~90%. This means that ~90% of the incoming solar radiation is reflected back into the atmosphere, and that only 10% is used for melting the surface snow. The snow and ice algae give rise to albedos of 35-49%, which means that 51-65% of the incoming solar radiation is used to melt the surface snow.

Scientists at the Universities of Bristol (Martyn Tranter, Alex Anesio, Jon Bamber, Jo Laybourn-Parry, Nicholas Roberts, Jemma Wadham and Marian Yallop), Leeds (Liane Benning and Jim McQuaid), Sheffield (Edward Hanna and Andy Hodson) and Aberystwyth (Tris Irvine-Fynn) have been awarded over £3 million during the next five years to study these microbes and to evaluate how their distribution and growth combine with the other factors to darken the ice surface and enhance the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet . They are joined by a talented team of international partner scientists, including Carl BØggild (Copenhagen, Denmark), Jason Box (GEUS, Denmark), Michiel van den Broeke (Utrecht, Netherlands), Brent Christner (Louisianna State, USA), Gianfelice Cinque and Burkhard Kaulich (Diamond Light Source, UK), Xavier Fettweis (Liege, Belgium), Paolo Formenti (Paris, France), Alex Gardner (NASA JPL, USA), Stef Lhermitte (Leuven, Belgium), Martin Sharp (Alberta, Canada), Marek Stibal (Prague, Czech Republic) and Nozomu Takeuchi (Chiba, Japan).

Our goal will be to understand what controls the growth and blooming of the microorganisms. We want to know how they stick to the small amounts of dark particles present in the snow and ice, including dust and black soot, and if they retain those particles at the surface for long periods.

We will be making some of the first detailed measurements of how the surface or the ice sheet darkens over the whole spring, summer and autumn, starting with cold snow, going through slush, then ice as the snow melt drains away, and finally to rotten ice, a mix of ice and water. At the moment, we lack detailed field measurements that take account of all the different factors that darken the ice sheet surface. Our detailed field measurements will do just this. Importantly, few measurements of coloured microbes have been made alongside the other factors, which include how wet the snow and ice is and the size of the snow and ice crystals. Wet snow and ice and bigger crystals are usually darker. Details of fieldwork already undertaken on the Greenland Ice Sheet by our partners at GEUS as part of the Dark Snow Project can be found at .

Finally, we will put all our information on surface darkening into a melt model of the whole ice sheet that will be used to predict how much sea level rise will occur in the future. Currently, sea level is rising by about 1cm per decade, but there are real concerns that this could accelerate in the future. In addition, there are concerns that the input of more fresh water into the seas south of Greenland may decrease the flow of the Gulf Stream, which is responsible for the temperate climate of the UK. Warming leads to greater melting of the ice sheet interior, which is quite flat, and so holds melt water at the surface for longer. This will lead to more growth of microbes, which will darken the surface and increase the amount of melt. We need to be able to predict with more certainty than we can do at present just how much more melting will arise as a consequence, so that we can be confident that our predictions of sea level rise are more accurate.

[1] Lutz, S., Anesio, A. M., Jorge Villar, S. E. & Benning, L. G. Variations of algal communities cause darkening of a Greenland glacier. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 89, 402-414, doi:10.1111/1574-6941.12351 (2014).


About the August, 2014 dark Greenland photos

Photos and video I took during an August 2014 south Greenland maintenance tour of climate stations and an extreme ice survey time lapse camera went viral, featuring a surprisingly (to me and others) dark surface of Greenland ice.

What we know, the southern Greenland ice sheet hit record low reflectivity in the period of satellite observations since 2000 due to a ~2 month drought affecting south Greenland…
map with colors indicating when record low albedo was observed. The photos are from the blue patch near the southern tip of Greenland.
Snowfall summer 2014  for south Greenland would have kept the melt rates down by brightening up the surface. Summer 2014, at the QAS_A site, we recorded ice loss from the surface at a place we thought was above equilibrium line altitude, where the surface would lose no ice in an ‘average climate’. The higher than normal melt rates allowed the impurities to concentrate near the surface in a process documented for snow surfaces by Doherty et al. (2013).
To avoid misinterpretation, black carbon is only part of the darkness, the rest is dust and microbes (See Dumont et al. 2014 and Benning et al. 2014). The photos are from the lowest part of the ice sheet’s elevation. The upper elevations do not get nearly this dark. This satellite image illustrates for west Greenland how dark the surface gets, down to 30% reflectivity.
Work Cited
  • Benning, L.G. A.M. Anesio, S. Lutz & M. Tranter, Biological impact on Greenland’s albedo, Nature Geoscience 7, 691 (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2260
  • Doherty, S. J., T. C. Grenfell, S. Forsstro¨ m, 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.
  • 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
Photo by Jason Box

Photos by Jason Box


Sky selfie

from part of NSIDC’s Greenland-today 20 August, 2014 post…

Sky selfie

Our colleague Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), and graduate student Johnny Ryan of Aberystwyth University spent much of the summer on the western ice sheet at Camp Dark Snow, near Kangerlugssuaq on the Arctic Circle (67 degrees north latitude at 1,010 meters above sea level). The team was investigating the Greenland surface albedo, climate, and surface melting, and how these evolve during summer. As part of the research, they have been using drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs) to photograph the surface from low altitude to examine the development of surface structures associated with melting. Strips of images and albedo measurements from the UAV are compared with simultaneous satellite images from the NASA MODIS sensor as an intermediate state to relate ground albedo measurements with that of the entire ice sheet. UAV photos reveal a surface riven with fractures, and drained by ephemeral rivers of melt water. The mid-summer melt surface in this area is pocked with 0.5 to 1 meter-wide (1.5 to 3 feet-wide) potholes with black grit and dust collected at the bottom. This black material is called cryoconite, and is comprised of dust and soot deposited on the surface, and melted out from the older ice exposed by melting. The dark patches are often glued together by tiny microbes.


Images of the Greenland Ice Sheet near Kangerlugssuaq in west-central Greenland taken by a drone (UAV) used to evaluate the evolving albedo of the ice sheet surface during the summer melt season. At top left, Prof. Jason Box and Johnny Ryan, a Ph.D. student at Aberystwyth University, hold the drone they used. Top left, the drone takes a picture of the surface (and the operator, J. Ryan) on August 9, 2014 from low altitude, showing numerous cryoconite holes filled with black dust, grit, and soot that had accumulated in the winter snowpack, and melted out of the older ice below. Bottom, a higher-altitude image of the same area reveals sinuous melt streams and linear fractures, as well as small speckles of cryoconite holes on the ice sheet. Tents from the camp are also visible as colorful dots against the ice surface. 

ps. Professors Alun Hubbard and Niel Snooke at Aberystwyth University deserve a lot of credit for the UAV development.