Large Sections of Greenland Covered in Melt Ponds, Dark Snow

Over the past couple of days, temperatures across the Greenland Ice Sheet have really ramped up. The result has been a pretty significant mid-to-late season melt pulse. According to NSIDC, nearly 40 percent of the ice sheet surface has been affected by surface melt during recent days. And Greenland ice mass balance appears to have also taken a hit.

This surface melt pulse is, arguably, best portrayed in the satellite imagery:

Greenland Melt July 20

(Large section of Western Greenland near the Jackobshavn Glacier experiencing significant surface melt on July 20, 2016. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

On July 20th, this approximate 300 x 70 mile swath of Western Greenland shows a number of distinct strong melt features. Near the interior edge of the melt zone we notice the light blue coloration indicative of widespread and general surface melt. From the satellite, this bluing gives the impression of a thin layer of surface water covering a widespread area of the ice sheet. But it is more likely that the blue tint comes from a plethora of small melt ponds and rivers that blend together in the lower resolution satellite shot to lend the impression of ubiquitous water coverage.

Large Melt Ponds, Dark Snow Over Western Greenland

Further in, we notice the darker blue swatches that indicate large melt ponds. Some of these ponds are quite extensive — measuring 1/4 to up to 1 mile in length. Ponds of this size tend to put a lot of pressure on the Greenland surface and can pretty quickly bore down into the ice sheet’s depths and interior. The water then either becomes locked in the ice — forming a kind of subglacial lake — or flows to base regions of the glacier where it can lubricate the ice — causing it to speed up.

Large Melt Ponds Dark Snow Western Greenland

(Close up satellite shot shows 1/4 to 1 mile long melt ponds, general melt ponding and a darkened Greenland Ice Sheet. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Still closer to the ice edge we find greatly darkened patches of ice. Darkening occurs when ice melt reveals and thickens past layers of ice sheet dust and soot accumulation. Each year, winds carry dust from land masses and soot from fires — which now, due to rapid Earth warming, burn more frequently over the Arctic and near-Arctic — to the ice sheet where it accumulates. This darker material is then covered by the annual layers of snowfall. If enough snow and ice melts, the yearly layers of dust and soot accumulation can concentrate into a gray-black covering. Such a covering is clearly visible in the July 20 satellite imagery above.

According to Dr. Jason Box, as much as 5.6 percent of the Greenland Ice Sheet was covered by this darkening, which he calls Dark Snow, as recently as 2014. Darkening of the Greenland ice sheet can accelerate melt as it reduces the ice sheet’s ability to reflect the sun’s rays — resulting in more overall heat absorption.

Substantial Northeastern Greenland Melt Also Visible

Zachariae Surface Melt Darkening

(Zacharie Isstrom Glacier in Northeastern Greenland shows significant melt in July 20 satellite shot. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Though surface melt and darkening is quite extensive along the southwestern flank of Greenland, toward the north and east, widespread surface melt, ponding and ice darkening is also visible over sections of the Zachariae Glacier. Here, in a far northern section of Greenland that borders the Arctic Ocean, we find an approximate 100 x 20 mile region of melting and darkening ice. Note the tell-tale bluing and dark gray patches visible in the above image.

For this region, ice has tended to experience more melt during recent years as sea ice within the Fram Strait and Greenland Sea has receded. This has revealed more darker ocean surfaces which, in turn, has absorbed more incoming solar radiation resulting in increased warming for this section of Greenland.

Conditions in Context — Human-Forced Warming Pushing Greenland to Melt Faster

Overall, Greenland melt is this year less extensive than the record 2012 melt season. However, the current mid-to-late season pulse has forced a big melt acceleration that may result in melt that exceeds 250 billion tons of ice loss for 2016 (or the average over recent years). In the pretty near future, continued high global temperatures and additional warming due to human fossil fuel emissions will almost certainly push Greenland to melt at a faster pace.

To this point, the Earth has now warmed by more than 1 C above Preindustrial temperatures. And a range of 1-2 C warming from this baseline in past climate eras such as the Eemian resulted in a 10-20 foot rise in world ocean levels. We’re in this temperature range now. So that’s pretty bad news for sea level rise — to which Greenland now contributes enough melt to lift seas by about 0.75 mm every year. The only real questions at this point are how fast will that already substantial melt accelerate, and will we halt fossil fuel burning swiftly enough to slow it down.



The National Snow and Ice Data Center

Greenland Surface Mass Budget

These Stunning Photos of Greenland’s Dark Snow Should Worry You

The Dark Snow Project (please support)

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Scribbler-sponsored note on Trump:

Trump Chooses Climate Change Denier as Energy Advisor

Leave a comment


  1. Spike

     /  July 21, 2016

    Nice look at Eemian here – looks like 2.5m may have come from Greenland meltwater, and more from Antarctica. I haven’t found the Arizona State paper they refer to but will try and run it down.

  2. Bad News for the Planet if Trump wins and chooses Harold Hamm as energy Sec..He rules Okla and the Gov of Okla to be a speaker at the convention Addressing the convention on Wednesday night, Hamm called for expanded drilling and said too much environmental regulation threatened to limit U.S. oil production and increase the country’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil producers.

    “Every time we can’t drill a well in America, terrorism is being funded,” Hamm told the cheering crowd. “Every onerous regulation puts American lives at risk.”

    Hamm, 70, became one of America’s wealthiest men during the U.S. oil and gas drilling boom over the past decade, tapping into new hydraulic fracturing drilling technology to access vast deposits in North Dakota’s shale fields.

    • Thanks for the comment and link here, Jean. I have to agree here. Trump and the republicans in general are charting the absolute worst path possible on climate change. RCP 8.5, BAU, charting a path to a new Permian type extinction, and 4-7 C warming by the end of this century should be their campaign slogans.

  3. Ryan in New England

     /  July 21, 2016

    Robert, I’d just like to say that you’ve been doing an amazing job lately, both with your number of posts and the content within them. My life has been extremely busy, and I’ve been finding it hard to keep up 😉 You have an incredible talent for taking a wide range of events, impacts and subjects and exposing the thread which links them all together. We live in rapidly changing times, and dangerous times considering a completely incompetent charlatan has become the Republican nominee for POTUS.

    • Thanks, Ryan. You could say I’ve got a bit of fire in the belly. In no small part due to the amazing research and conversations so often posted here.

      Charlatan is right. And worse, I think. Trump’s really a pretty decent example of humanity’s darkest aspects. Most republicans too these days.

      But for all the Trumps in the world, I find it refreshing to know that people like you, Ryan, exist. You’re the counter point. The part of humankind that gives us a chance to make it through this mess. People like you are the chief reason why I keep working as hard as I can.

      It’s just going to take one heck of an effort. And unfortunately the most difficult part of that effort is not facing climate change (as ridiculously difficult as that will be, in the end), it’s facing down the all-too-human darkness that created the problem in the first place.

    • Trump’s corporate pledge of allegiance:

      My corporate-country thee
      Sweet land I will burn ye
      Droughts and storms I’ll bring

      Lands corporate privatize
      Lands filled with ecocide
      Frack every mountainside
      Let Hell’s bells ring

  4. Ryan in New England

     /  July 21, 2016

    Some tragic news, and another example of how far we’ve already gone towards altering/destroying the biosphere. Sections of the Great Barrier Reef are undergoing ” complete ecosystem collapse”.

    Marshall said the lack of fish was an indication that there was “complete ecosystem collapse”. Without enough surviving corals, the fish didn’t have the shelter and food sources they needed and had died or moved elsewhere.
    Without many of those fish, Marshall said the coral would face a harder time recovering, since the entire ecosystem had been degraded.
    He said he was also surprised to see that some of the surviving corals continued to bleach, despite the southern hemisphere winter bringing cooler waters to the Great Barrier Reef.
    “There are still corals bleaching,” Marshall said. “Especially noticeable on Lizard Island were the soft corals. Some of them have remained bleached. And some of the hard corals are still white.”

    But, overall, Marshall estimate that more than 90% of the branching corals had died around Lizard Island. He said many of the huge porites corals, which could be a thousand years old, had died.

  5. John McCormick

     /  July 21, 2016

    This is beyond Aldous Huxley’s imagination.

    Decades of global soot and ash falling on the Greenland surface. As the surface melts, each soot layer is deposited on the one below until they collectively make a thick carpet of heat absorbing surface. Melt will occur so rapidly, coastal response will be out of the question.

    There are dynamics happening over which we have absolutely no control and live at their mercy.

    • wili

       /  July 21, 2016

      True, but all the more reason to pull even harder on the levers that we still do control.

  6. – I don’t have any more ‘free’ views of the NYT for this month — so I send this due to the headline.

  7. Colorado Bob

     /  July 21, 2016

    09:05 UTC

    Fires and smoke in central Russia

  8. Colorado Bob

     /  July 21, 2016

    This year’s monsoon floods are the second-costliest on record in China
    Months of torrential monsoon rainfall have led to some of the worst flooding China has experienced in modern history. It is now the second-costliest flooding on record in China and the fifth-most destructive weather-related disaster for non-U.S. countries.

  9. climatehawk1

     /  July 21, 2016

    Scheduling tweet.

  10. longwalks1

     /  July 21, 2016

    More study this year on site in Greenland of algae albedo effects in process. Should be interesting, they have connection with Box and the Dark Ice project. The following is a brief description of their goals.

  11. Spike

     /  July 21, 2016

    Interesting video from NASA showing falling sea level around Greenland due to reduced gravitational mass.

  12. Jay M

     /  July 22, 2016

    Short paper on Oxygen isotope ratios that are important in paleoclimatology. Wonder if there is a “Keeling curve” in contemporary isotope ratios? Climate does seem to march up the latitudes.

  13. Meanwhile a diesel-powered Canadian icebreaker will plow through the icecap all the way to the North Pole soon, to “bolster” territorial resource claims on a pie slice of the Arctic undergoing rapid meltdown. I bet they find blue water at the end of this “butterfly effect” action.

    • Cate

       /  July 22, 2016

      Well, yes, but sometimes it’s necessary to burn diesel in the name of research and security.
      As a Canadian, I’m fully in favour of this expedition, which must be carried out if the Arctic is to be protected and patrolled—and if Canada is going to have any kind of recognised jurisdiction in waters that are essentailly coastal for us. We have to be there.

      If Canada does not show itself in the Far North, we will soon be seeing Russian ships in the Labrador Sea–not a comfortable prospect for me, personally, and one you can be sure the Pentagon is watching very very carefully as well.

      No, I’m saving my vitriol for the entirely commercial, frivolous, environmentally irresponsible and totally reprehensible “expedition cruise” of the Crystal Serenity through the NW Passage later this year, with thousands of filthy-rich tourists on board.

      Now there’s a butterfly worth skewering. 🙂

  14. Erik

     /  July 22, 2016

    I was watching a video of the Marine Biologist Jeremy Jackson, a talk given at the US Naval War College in 2015 titled Sea Level Rise is Dangerous, and he said something interesting in it, but was somewhat beyond even what Hansen has been warning about fast, large sea level rise.

    He said that in a few decades that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could “break” and deliver 10 feet of sea level rise “in a few years.”

    I’m wondering how fast that ice can slide into the ocean. The glaciologist Richard Alley described the topography of West Antarctica as a “greased griddle.”

  15. William J. Lopez

     /  July 23, 2016

    For the Republicans to listen, it will take a hurricane at high tide hitting a low lying metropolitan area, like Miami, FL. I periodically check CO2 levels on The rise in CO2 in the past 2 years has been alarming. One need not be a scientist to see the correlation between global warming, climate change, and the rise in CO2.


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