Posted Online: March 18, 2013, 11:43 am

Ice in decline: Researcher probes cause of arctic ice melt

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By Sarah J. Gardner, sjgardner@qconline.com

Photo:
Geographer Dr. Jason Box on a research expedition in Greenland.
You could say Dr. Jason Box began his research on glaciers at an early age. While growing up in Colorado, he said, his first report in elementary school was on glaciers. To write it, he used the Encyclopedia Britannica. These days, the Nobel laureate takes a more hands-on approach to his research, having logged 19 trips to Greenland since 1994 and spent more than a year camping on the ice sheet.

Box appeared at Augustana College in Rock Island last month to deliver a talk ahead of the screening of "Chasing Ice," a film that will be shown at the college on March 23 as part of the annual Environmental Film Festival put together by the Eagle View Group of the Sierra Club. Box was a key contributor to the Greenland portion of the film, which uses time-lapse videos to capture the decline of glaciers over the course of several years. A trailer for the film can be seen at chasingice.com.

"I've seen audiences react to the film, and I know it's connecting with people in ways that pure science doesn't connect, because it has art and it has communication," said Box. "That's valuable, because of the urgency of climate change."

Part of that urgency is spurred by realization among scientists that the effects of climate change are taking place faster than previously predicted. Greenland is a good example of this, said Box, because the "models don't predict the extent of melting that we've observed in recent years." In the summer of 2012, for example, NASA satellites showed virtually the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet was melting — to the astonishment of many observers.

"Climate models often surprise us in how conservative they are," said Box, who explains this is because all the different factors have not yet been articulated by scientists or then encoded as mathematical formulas in the models. "It takes a long time to develop that code."

Currently, Box is embarking upon a research project he hopes will identify one of these as-yet unaccounted factors. As climate change causes an increase in wildfires such as those seen in Colorado last summer, could the soot they produce be settling on the Greenland ice sheet and causing it to melt at an accelerated rate?

He describes the expedition as an "experiment in citizen science crowd funding" because, rather than relying on a grant from a science foundation, the project has set up a website (DarkSnowProject.org) that seeks funding from ordinary citizens. It is the first major scientific research project to use social media and Internet crowd funding to cover its costs.

"Supporters are part of the expedition," said Box. "We communicate back to them our progress and findings, and so they can feel some ownership of the project." It's a good way for those who see the film "Chasing Ice" and want to help further Arctic research to do so, he said.

Ultimately, the effects of climate change we are observing merit our response, said Box. There is no one silver bullet to reverse current trends, he explained, but there are a number of things we can do that add up to "silver buckshot." "We can take the edge off of it for sure," he said. "We want to because we're flirting with carbon catastrophe. For the sake of our kids we have no choice but to start taking this more seriously."

8th Annual Environmental Film Fest

The 2013 Environmental Film Festival will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. March 23 in Olin Auditorium at Augustana College, 639 38th St, Rock Island. As in years past, the event will be free and open to the public, and healthy snacks will be served between films. "We don't want anybody to leave because they are hungry. There's no need!" said Kathryn Allen, one of the event organizers.

In addition to "Chasing Ice," two other full-length feature films will be screened at the event. "Last Call at the Oasis," a film about the growing water crisis, and "The Clean Bridge Project," a documentary that follows the adventures of one couple who commit to generating no waste for one year.

For more information on the event, visit augustana.edu/x12049.xml.