A New Record Linked to Climate Change Was Just Set in Greenland. It May Seem Esoteric, But It’s Really Important.

By Tom Yulsman | July 18, 2015 9:04 pm



The animation above shows changes in the amount of sunlight reflected by snow on the Greenland Ice Sheet between May 21 and July 14, 2015. Warm colors show areas where reflectivity, or “albedo,” was low. A record low occurred in early July. (Images: Polar Portal. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Back in early July, unusual warmth helped trigger a sudden and dramatic spike in melting at the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet. Exactly what was happening, and whether the trend would continue, was unclear.

SEE ALSO: As Parts of Three Continents Bake, Greenland Sees Sudden Spike in Surface Melting

Two weeks later, we now know that while the extent of surface melting is still significantly above average, it has not come close to breaking the record (at least not yet).

At the same time, another significant milestone has been reached: The amount of sunlight reflected by snow on the ice sheet’s surface plummeted during the first week of July to the lowest levels seen in the 16 years that it has been measured by satellite. (Check out the black line in this graph.)

Reflectivity of snow is not as esoteric as it may seem. It’s actually an important climate variable — one that played a critical role in Greenland’s record-setting surface melt in July of 2012. At that time, just a little less than 100 percent of the surface experienced melting.

It was an astonishing event, and warm temperatures were partly to blame. But so was another factor: darkening of the snow by soot from wildfires burning many hundreds of miles away. And as you’ll see in a minute, soot may have been a factor this summer too.


Dome of high pressure parked over Greenland. (Source: NSIDC)

When snow at the surface melts, and even when it warms just shy of the melting point, it will become darker. This causes its reflectivity, or “albedo,” to drop. Although this summer started out cold and snowy in Greenland, by the second half of June, “temperatures were everywhere markedly higher than average,” according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Those warm temperatures, as well as bright, sunny skies, were linked to a dome of unusually high atmospheric pressure that formed over Greenland in June. This was in keeping with a trend in recent decades of higher pressures over Greenland and part of the Central Arctic Ocean during summer.


The animation above shows movement of smoke plumes around the Northern Hemisphere from July 1 through July 14, 2015. It was made from data collected by the Suomi NPP satellite. Lower aerosol concentrations in the smoke are shown in yellow, and higher concentrations in dark orange-brown. Gray indicates areas where data were unavailable. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory.)

The surface of an ice sheet can also become darker when winds carry soot in from distant wildfires. And, in fact, by early July smoke traveling west from wildfires in Alaska, and drifting east from conflagrations in Canada, converged over Greenland.

We’ll have to wait until data from surface surveys are available to know how much of an impact wildfire soot may have had on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet in early July.

We do know that during 2012’s record melting, it turned out to be a key factor.

That year, temperatures at the surface were unusually warm, and those balmy conditions were enhanced by a low layer of clouds consisting of tiny water droplets. The cloud layer was thin enough to allow sunlight to pass through and help melt the surface. At the same time it was also thick enough to trap a significant amount of thermal energy being radiated upward from the surface.

But a study published last year suggests those factors alone probably weren’t enough to cause surface melting in the high, dry central region of the ice sheet. Yet melting happened there too — because soot from distant wildfires had lowered the albedo of the snow below a critical threshold, the researchers found.

And that’s why albedo — however esoteric the concept may seem — is really important.

In fact, global warming, wildfires, albedo, and melting snow and ice, are all potentially tied together in a reinforcing feedback loop. Here’s how:

Warmer temperatures due to human activities have been contributing to increased wildfire activity. This has caused darkening of the snow in Greenland, which — as we’ve seen — has helped lead to increased melting at the ice sheet’s surface. More melting of the ice sheet’s surface decreases its albedo, which causes still more melting. Now, add in more global warming from human activities, and you’ve got more fires, lower albedo, more melting, lower albedo, etc., etc.

In 2012, the biggest spike in surface melting in Greenland occurred about mid way through the warm season. That’s where we’re at right now. I wouldn’t bet on a similar event happening this year, because it would take an extraordinary confluence of events.

Extraordinary, but not impossible.


  • mememine

    The people of the planet have spoken;
    34 years of climate action failure and global disbelief is 100% proof science “couldn’t” say; “certain” and only their laughable; 97% certainty that THE END IS NEAR.
    Deny that.

    • longwing

      End The Week Check Your Bank Account .. -d-i-s-c-o-v-e-r-_-M-o-n-o-y < w­­­w­­­w­.­F­o­x­-w­o­r­k­­­5.­­­C­­­o­­­m

    • John C

      Breathe in, breathe out.

  • go2green

    The indications of accelerating global warming are showing up around the world. This article is just one more example.

    • pauline_roberge
  • OWilson

    Hopefully it will continue to warm after the major and minor ice ages we’ve experienced, and once again we’ll see fertile valleys, and boreal forests, with butterflies flitting through again. (see scienitists unearth DNA – Wiki)

    It may help the locals deal with the extremely high rates of suicide, and alcoholism.

    (But 15 years does not a climate make :)

    • Mike Richardson

      That’ll be great for Greenland, not so great for coastal cities and the hundreds of millions of us who live less than 6.5 meters above sea level. But it’s good you can find the positive in the situation, even if it requires a pretty skewed perspective. Keep wearing those rose-tinted glasses. :)

      • OWilson

        Don’t worry.

        We are taking incredibly more urban and rural land from the seas and lakes for new cities, farming, parks, airports, highways, military sites than we could ever lose at the NOAA’s rate of 3.3 mm per year.

        Check with your liberal pals in Cape Cod, Chapaquidick, Malibu, Boca Raton and Martha’s Vineyard.

        Try and find out how many are packing their limousines and hightailing it out of there. I’d like to buy a cheap waterfront lot.

        Get back to us, y’hear?


        • Mike Richardson

          I’m sure their property’s well insured, though probably it’s getting more expensive. And that whole guilt by association thing really isn’t that effective, which is why I stick to what you say and do, versus saying “You and your buddies Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Ted Cruze, etc.” I actually don’t have a lot of respect for those on the East Coast that express concern for the environment, but oppose offshore wind farms as an “eyesore.” Hypocrisy isn’t very pretty regardless of what side of the political spectrum it falls on.

          • OWilson

            If you started thinking for yourself, it would all become clear, and you would not be faced with all these hypocritical contradictions from your own “side” :)

            But, I know that’s not easy for you.

          • Mike Richardson

            It would be refreshing if you could accept that others, even those who disagree with you, are seeking to do the same. :)

          • OWilson

            That’s very difficult thing for a liberal, progressive, leftist, socialist to do. (wish you guys would quit messing with the label packaging, Global Cooling, Global Warming, Climate Change, would be so much more efficient to discuss:))
            Because you folks don’t believe in absolutes, only relativism.
            Liberals believe that the Cold War, and I quote, as taught in schools, “Was a struggle between two superpowers”.
            Now, to me, it was a struggle between an expanding imperialist empire (they had overrun sovereign countries in Europe and Asia, and were in the process of installing ICBM’s pointing at New York and Chicago, in Communist Cuba.
            Contrast that with the most powerful nation the earth has ever seen, leaving it’s conquered nations to themselves and helping them recover, and not expanding its borders (aside from rental arrangements around the world like the Philippines, which they leave when the lease is up)
            But guess who the low info voters of the left accuse of “Imperialism”.
            Yep, bingo!

          • Mike Richardson

            So the short answer is — apparently not.

          • OWilson


            By your own admission, you are always talking about looking for “facts” to boost your “side” of the argument, and “win folks over”.

            Sound more like a religion, than a search for truth.:)

          • Mike Richardson

            No, it’s called “reason,” using facts within a logical framework of previously acquired knowledge to develop an informed opinion. Believing you have “the truth” to begin with, then distorting facts or discarding them if they don’t agree with “the truth,” would be more in line with religious fanaticism. I can accept if the facts don’t support an opinion I’ve previously held, and adapt accordingly. It’s a viewpoint I’d encourage in others, and if that’s what you consider “winning folks over” to “my side,” then so be it. :)

          • OWilson

            I think it’s your “framework of previously acquired knowledge”” that’s preventing you from making any kind of universal sense, (as opposed to the approval to your echo chamber compatriots)

            Discard “frameworks” and think for yourself.

            You’ll find it so….so …liberating. :)

            Not all folks can, though, and that’s your problem, not mine!

  • OWilson

    Meanwhile, in other less reported news, That “baking, on fire” Los Angeles County, set an all time record for rain,

    See: California Flooding: Interstate 10 Bridge Washed Away as HISTORIC RAIN EVENT Unfolds; Highway Closed Completely …Weather Channel

    Time to start building that Ark? :)

    • Mike Richardson

      And I think we’ve found the recipient of the award for the non sequitur of the day. Doesn’t relate to Greenland in any way, shape, or form. And, weather isn’t climate. But other than that, good point. :) Umm, what was the point, again?

      • OWilson

        It’s all about context.

        And “record” climate events were indeed the subject of the article.

        I don’t expect low info folks like you to grasp the connection, without a detailed explanation. :)

        But it does get tiresome!

        • Mike Richardson

          No, it doesn’t really follow in the context of the article, but I do get that you were trying to imply that the drought in the West was lessened somewhat. Although this one rain event hasn’t done much for the region as a whole, which is still in drought. Heh, and you threw in a “low info” insult, too! That’s maybe not the most mature response from someone my senior, but if you’ve got nothing else to work with, I understand. Anyway, if you are getting tired from this, might I suggest a nap? You might feel better afterwards. Evening, Wilson, and get a good night’s sleep! :)

          • OWilson

            Feel better now?

            Maybe it’s your coffee?

          • Mike Richardson

            Actually, I do. Thanks for asking. I always function better with my daily dose of java juice. Good day to you, sir. :)

  • JD Kober

    Meanwhile those P-38 Lightnings just keep getting buried deeper and deeper every year. How is that? http://www.warbirdsnews.com/warbirds-news/arctic-p-38-lightning-recovery-set-summer.html

    • Turboblocke

      If they are, maybe it’s because they are sinking. They are denser than snow.

      • JD Kober

        their density has nothing to do with it They’re buried in solid ice.

        • Turboblocke

          Look up regelation: ice melting under pressure.

    • JimmySD

      For the life of me I cannot figure out how people can make statements like this and not be embarrassed by their own stupidity.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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