It isn’t just happening in Greenland. It’s happening in the Himalayas, in western North America, in the Arctic circle. For the past few decades, glaciers and ice sheets in these locations are turning black, darkening from soot and other pollutants. Sure, it’s an aesthetic problem, but black ice leads to a much larger and more dangerous problem: Sea level rise.


In the Tibetan Himalayas, dung and wood are used to fuel cooking stoves. Over time, the soot produced by these fires has drifted on the wind and settled on the surrounding glaciers – glaciers that feed the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges rivers and sustain two billion people. A 2009 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that this soot, coupled with global warming trends, is playing a key role in melting the Himalayan glaciers.

This is because the soot decreases snow’s “albedo,” its ability to reflect solar energy back into space. White snow, ice and clouds can reflect a portion of the sun’s rays and remain cool, even when they cover large areas. Darker areas, however, even small ones, absorb the sun’s heat much more easily. Thus, as snow darkens, it melts much more easily.

The effect of soot on Himalayan glaciers is the same observed on Greenland’s ice sheets. Utilizing remote sensing data, a report published in Nature Geoscience earlier this year “indicates that the springtime darkening [of the Greenland ice sheet] since 2009 stems from a widespread increase in the amount of light-absorbing impurities in snow, as well as in the atmosphere.”

The soot that’s blackening the ice comes from multiple sources: pollen and dust, industrial and automotive exhaust, and forest fires. In early October, Jason Box from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland reported that there had been more forest fires in the northern hemisphere this year than any year in the last decade.

America, for example, is experiencing drier conditions and longer fire seasons, which has resulted in bigger, costlier wildfires along its west coast. Fires have been so severe that the state exhausted its larger-than-average $209 million fire-fighting budget in the first three months of the fiscal year.

Recently, Box used drones to survey Greenland’s darkening ice. The damage can be glimpsed in the video below.

“The Arctic is warming up twice as fast as the Subarctic, and we think it may be due to the dark ice that absorbs the sun’s rays rather than reflecting them as white ice would,” Box told ScienceNordic. “Therefore, it is important that we get a better understanding of the significance of the dark ice.”

As the temperature rises, microbes are finding it easier to survive in the Arctic. Algae is beginning to thrive in Greenland, which further minimizes the area’s albedo and accelerates the melting process.

“The microbes are currently getting more space to live and grow,” says Box’s colleague, Marek Stibal. “Moreover, they are not dependent on being brought by the wind, and it makes their contribution even more significant.”

Black ice and snow is very likely a contributing factor to the “unprecedented rate” of volume loss in the Greenland ice sheet observed by the European Space Agency’s CryoSatellite. As global ice sheets continue to blacken, they will melt even faster, potentially leading to more advanced sea level rise by the end of this century than previously predicted.

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4 Responses

  1. Daniel Stoelb says:

    I have been a visitor to Greenland in the past and have indeed noticed changes to the amount and level of glacial ice sheets in this area. I do agree that "black ice" will absorb more solar heat through reduced "albedo effect" and increase the melting of snow and ice.

    The increase in large land fires not only in the US but throughout the world are contributors to this effect. The massive increase in the use of coal in China and India also have played a significant role in increasing black ice.

    This is one legitimate cause for Greenland glacial melting increasing at an alarming rate. It is one man-caused factor that we do need to control that will reduce the creation of black ice.

    However, the issue of climate change being primarily man-caused is not settled. Yes, man does have an impact on pollution and greenhouse gases, but the impact of changes in the solar energy output; the solar cycles; the changes in ocean temperatures and even the amount of wind blowing across the oceans are factors that have not been statistically included in most climate change studies in the past. The reason is that many scientists admit that these " non-man caused factors" are "hard" to measure so they have not been included sufficiently in many past studies. Many climate studies have started with the premise that man-causes are the biggest contributors to climate change. But that is ignoring these other known contributing factors, which I believe have more impact on cyclical climate change beyond man-caused factors.

    Man does influence the environment- but climate change has become to politicized and rational discussion over a more comprehensive understanding of climate change is necessary if we wish to really understand and implement solutions.

    • Detroit57 says:

      Climate study after climate study after climate study have noted that 90% of all man-made atmospheric heating is absorbed by our oceans, which has resulted in the warmest ocean temperatures in recorded history. How can you make such a false statement as there isn't enough study on record high ocean temperatures?

      Here is the political controversy over climate change in a nutshell:. Right now the US economy is driven by fossil fuels. Wealthy fossil fuel barons control the Republican Party, and they desperately want to inject enough doubt into the climate change debate to protect their $100 billion per year in profits.

      This is despite numerous US and international respected business media sources that have increasingly said that renewable-source energy will be less-expensive than fossil-fuel energy within 3-8 years. Numerous other respected business sources have also warned about a growing fossil fuel industry-driven debt bubble which could very well cause another major recession either due to falling fossil fuel industry demand and/or if the Fed ends QE Infinity and then raises interest rates, as the huge debt loads that the fracking and directional-drilling industry in-particular are carrying today can't survive either a loss of market share or a rise in interest rates.

      So people like Daniel are doing everything that they can to try to inject doubt into the ongoing discussion over climate change trying desperately to protect the fossil fuel industry. If they could they would like to outlaw renewable energy development, and also outlaw any additional US moves to protect ourselves from climate change too.

      So my guess is that President Obama is going to be a busy guy for the next two years vetoing the desires of Daniel and of everyone else like him to take America back to the environmental dark ages in order to protect their fossil fuel industry.

    • Tom says:

      Yes i would like to know as well what makes your opinion more valid than this article? Using 'I believe' isn't scientifically useful, are you a climate scientist ?

      Many thanks for a useful response, would be appreciated.


  2. fabiotta says:

    Hey Dude – where is Your problem? Did You get the point?Get some information about the subject and then post
    your opinion again, otherwise this is a waste of time…Have you been paid by Exxon&Co? Oh my…somebody get me a doctor.

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