This is what it looks like to fly a drone over the vast expanse of icy, but thawing and human-stained Greenland.
Thank glaciologist Jason Box for the Arctic bird’s-eye view of one of the most serene, alien landscapes on the planet. Box spends much of his time in the polar north, which landed him in the headlines a few times this year: First, when he told me that if humans release a fraction of Arctic methane “we’re fucked”—his message went viral—and again when his crowd-funded Dark Snow project returned striking photos of soot-stained Greenland ice, which promptly did the same.
His research was again spotlighted this week, this time by NASA’s Earth Observatory, which shared images of the Dark Snow expedition. With the help of drones, Box discovered that while fresh snow has an albedo—a reflection rate, basically, of how much sunlight it bounces back—of 0.86, the bare ice that's part of the permanent sheet was much lower, below 0.3. That means it absorbs much more sunlight instead of reflecting it back into space.
Box also determined that fresh snow is prone to melt earlier for each iota of dust, soot, and even algae that blanket it—creating so-called dark snow—something he thinks is occurring more frequently with climate change. Both Greenland's fresh snow and old ice, then, could melt even faster than previously believed.
When I asked him about the status of his research, he replied: “We are in the process of converting the aerial photos from the Dark Snow UAV into measurements of ice reflectivity." Which meant there was something called the ‘Dark Snow UAV’ in the first place—maybe ‘Dark Snow Drone’ sounded a bit too sinister—and made clear how crucial a role drone technology was playing in his research.
Drone photography, in other words, may be a key to understanding how rapidly Greenland is melting.
Box had a hunch that enough residue from wildfires was landing in Greenland’s vast ice sheets to seriously reduce the amount of sunlight they could reflect—meaning they’d absorb more light and melt faster.
“When I founded Dark Snow Project,” he told me, “the target was black carbon from increasing wildfire, and we got data that confirmed soot was part of the 2012 record melt. But what we've learned since is that dust and microbes are also important. The story's more complicated.”
In order to tell that story, Box needed drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles are being deployed on all kinds of scientific expeditions now, but this in particular helps illustrate their burgeoning utility. Namely, they wouldn’t have been able to get nearly as good data without them.
UAV photo, annotated by NASA
“The UAV gives intermediate scale measurements to connect our ground point measurements with the larger scale,” he said.
The drones bridge the data, basically, between satellite data and ground measurements. And they also take some spectacular footage, too, which Box agreed to let us debut here. Take this one, where the drone takes off, soars over browned ice for as far as the ice can see, zooms into a cloud, and crash lands in an Arctic water hole.
Each drone—the team brings three, in case they get lost or broken during research—is mounted with two GoPros, one forward-pointing, one downward (that one’s high-res). They are also equipped with “up and down full spectrum solar irradiance sensors,” which were used in crucial calculations. The “ratio of upward to downward flux of energy is the albedo, or whiteness, dictating just how much sunpower is absorbed.”
That helped them make an alarming discovery, of course—”Without the ice sheet reflectivity reduction of the past decade, the increase in melt would be half as large! This is the albedo feedback.” Or, as Box told Slate earlier this year, “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”
The UAV flights were made possible by a partnership with University of Wales Aberystwyth, and were piloted by Johnny Ryan, a PhD student there.
Now fully aware how integral the UAVs were to the 2014 expedition, Box is working to up the ante. He’s crowdfunding another expedition with better drones—a “longer range fixed-wing UAV”—for next year, as he’d like to be able to cover more ground per flight and take better video.
"Crowd funding not only gets us to the field but has supporters effectively joining our team," Box said.
It’s a worthy effort, not just for the data, which could prove crucial in understanding yet another driver of climate change, but for the unprecedented immersion these videos offer us into an inhospitable environ that’s frozen over—for now—with jagged beauty.