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Relax, The Day After Tomorrow isn’t going to happen, like, tomorrow

Back in 2004, the blockbuster disaster film The Day After Tomorrow introduced the world to the important role that the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation might play in kicking climate change into overdrive. The ocean’s heat-transport system collapses in the movie, unleashing a tidal wave on New York City, spawning continent-sized superstorms, and freezing much of the Northern Hemisphere.

More than a decade later, mainstream science is still fighting the popular perception that abrupt climate change might just happen one afternoon — a ridiculous notion that skews our perception of the massive real-world consequences climate change is already bringing.

Problem is, there’s a thread of truth to that movie’s skewed premise: We know the Atlantic’s circulation is slowing down. And we know it’s expected to slow down in the future because of climate change. But the evidence of a catastrophic collapse anytime soon remains extremely tenuous.

This week, two teams of researchers published new evidence in the journal Nature that the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation is now at its weakest in at least the past 1,600 years.

Taken at face value, this news is troubling. If the Atlantic’s circulation continues to slow dramatically, it would mean changes in European weather, drought in central and west Africa, fluctuations in hurricane frequency, and sharp rises in sea level on the east coast of the United States as ocean water from the wind-driven Gulf Stream current piled up without an escape route.

Dig further, however, and you’ll find that there are reasons not to lose too much sleep over a looming ocean-triggered apocalypse.

The initial wave of news coverage this time around has been predictably dire, even for jaded journalists routinely confronted with the possibility of climate-induced civilizational collapse.

Take this line from the Washington Post’s coverage: “The Atlantic Ocean circulation that carries warmth into the Northern Hemisphere’s high latitudes is slowing down because of climate change, a team of scientists asserted Wednesday, suggesting one of the most feared consequences is already coming to pass.” Others went further: “Gulf Stream current at ‘record low’ with potentially devastating consequences for weather, warn scientists,” read a headline in The Independent.

Deep breaths, people. The truth isn’t quite so scary.

For starters, these results aren’t especially new. Similar work in 2015 showed largely the same thing — a slowdown coinciding with the rise of industrial civilization. Sure enough, a persistent cool spot has started to appear over the North Atlantic in recent years, just south of Greenland, exactly where we’d expect one if a slowdown was underway.

In phone and email conversations with Grist, the lead authors of both papers as well as outside experts strongly cautioned against making too much of the new research.

“I would not call it a global catastrophe,” says Levke Caesar, a physicist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and lead author of the first paper.

David Thornalley, a geographer at University College London and lead author of the second paper, mostly agrees. He says the best data available suggests that most likely the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation will gradually weaken over the next century. While that doesn’t rule out a collapse scenario, he says, “We don’t know how close we are to a tipping point.”

Other experts who study the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the scientific name for this phenomenon, say that recent news coverage has twisted their colleagues’ work out of context.

Isabela Astiz Le Bras, a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, says that direct measurements of the AMOC taken over the past 20 years “do not reflect the reported trends” that media coverage has latched on to. That’s partly because the new papers rely on indirect approximations, or proxies, of the AMOC.

“It seems like the uncertainty has been underplayed in the media, and the implications blown out of proportion, which is unfortunate,” Le Bras says.

Martha Buckley, an oceanographer at George Mason University, goes even further. She disputes the claim that the circulation has slowed down primarily as a result of climate change, mostly because there just isn’t enough evidence yet.

“I do not believe the framing of this research as a global catastrophe is supported by the science,” she says. “Furthermore, I believe it detracts from the imminent and certain impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, more heat waves, melting of ice, and ocean acidification.”

Setting aside possible human influence, the strength of the AMOC varies a lot naturally. David Smeed, an oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, United Kingdom, is the principal investigator for the leading effort to directly measure the AMOC, which he and his colleagues began in 2004.

“From our measurements that we make, so far what we’ve observed is consistent with natural variability,” Smeed says. “To detect an anthropogenic change, when we compare with the climate models, we realize that we need to measure a lot longer before we’d be able to detect that signal.”

At an international scientific meeting this summer, researchers will present their latest results and hash out their differences.

There is evidence that a sudden slowdown has happened before, about 30,000 years ago, an era defined by stronger storms and sudden sea-level rise. Another collapse would take years — not hours as in The Day After Tomorrow — and Buckley says not a single model predicts this scenario for this century without invoking simultaneous collapses in other climate systems, like the Greenland ice sheet.

But precisely because the AMOC has collapsed relatively quickly before, Thornally says, it’s worth worrying about now, especially because man-made climate change is creating “the right conditions for it to happen” — even if those conditions haven’t been met yet.

The media, says Thornalley, are “right to flag it as something that is potentially catastrophic, though catastrophic obviously in a different way than in a movie.”

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Relax, The Day After Tomorrow isn’t going to happen, like, tomorrow

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The sea is rising three times faster than we thought.

A lot of climate hawks spent late 2016 and early 2017 in reassessment or mourning. Meanwhile, Anthony Torres was busy channeling his fellow engaged millennials into direct action, including coordinated sit-ins at the offices of New York’s Chuck Schumer, the new Senate Minority Leader, and Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. The message: Do not play ball with the polluter-in-chief.

The son of a Nicaraguan immigrant father and a working-class New Yorker mother, Torres grew up with sea-level rise on his Long Island doorstep, and he understands how poverty, climate, and other social challenges are all knitted together. He’s proven especially adept at rallying peers to his side, both in an official capacity at the Sierra Club (where he helped coordinate communications and direct actions that aided in a defeat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and in extracurricular work with groups like #AllOfUs, a progressive collective aimed at organizing young people around threatened communities.

His advice on connecting different constituencies: “Activists need to create a story that is accessible to people who are not necessarily in our movements but who are in need of a bold and inspiring vision,” Torres says. “To me, it’s telling a story of America that intersects with race, gender, and class” and turning what might seem like differences into “a weapon in our arsenal that creates an America that never has happened before — a country for all of us.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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The sea is rising three times faster than we thought.

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The Solace of Open Spaces – Gretel Ehrlich

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The Solace of Open Spaces
Essays
Gretel Ehrlich

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: February 21, 2017

Publisher: Open Road Media

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These transcendent, lyrical essays on the West announced Gretel Ehrlich as a major American writer—“Wyoming has found its Whitman” (Annie Dillard). Poet and filmmaker Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming in 1975 to make the first in a series of documentaries when her partner died. Ehrlich stayed on and found she couldn’t leave. The Solace of Open Spaces is a chronicle of her first years on “the planet of Wyoming,” a personal journey into a place, a feeling, and a way of life.   Ehrlich captures both the otherworldly beauty and cruelty of the natural forces—the harsh wind, bitter cold, and swiftly changing seasons—in the remote reaches of the American West. She brings depth, tenderness, and humor to her portraits of the peculiar souls who also call it home: hermits and ranchers, rodeo cowboys and schoolteachers, dreamers and realists. Together, these essays form an evocative and vibrant tribute to the life Ehrlich chose and the geography she loves.   Originally written as journal entries addressed to a friend, The Solace of Open Spaces is raw, meditative, electrifying, and uncommonly wise. In prose “as expansive as a Wyoming vista, as charged as a bolt of prairie lightning,” Ehrlich explores the magical interplay between our interior lives and the world around us ( Newsday ). “Vivid, tough, and funny . . . Wyoming has found its Whitman . . . An exuberant and powerful book.” —Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek   “[Ehrlich] brings the long vistas into focus with the poise of an Ansel Adams. . . . She has been to the mountaintop and seen the mountain for what it is.” — The New York Times Book Review   “A stunning rumination on life on Wyoming’s high plains . . . Ehrlich’s gorgeous prose is as expansive as a Wyoming vista, as charged as a bolt of prairie lightning.” — Newsday   “Ehrlich’s best prose belongs in a league with Annie Dillard and even Thoreau. The Solace of Open Spaces releases the bracing air of the wilderness into the stuffy, heated confines of winter in civilization.” — San Francisco Chronicle   “The most exciting new prose I’ve come across this season . . . Part travelogue, part meditation, these twelve pieces are lyrical, humorous, and eye-opening.” — Glamour Gretel Ehrlich is an award-winning writer and naturalist. Born and raised in California, she was educated at Bennington College and UCLA Film School. She is the author of thirteen books, including the essay collection The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), the novel Heart Mountain (1988), and the memoirs A Match to the Heart : One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning (1994) and This Cold Heaven : Seven Seasons in Greenland (2001), as well as The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold (2004), and, most recently, Facing the Wave : A Journey in the Wake of a Tsunami (2014). Her prose pieces have appeared in Harper’s , the Atlantic , the New York Times Magazine , and National Geographic , among many other publications. Ehrlich lives in Montana and Hawaii.

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The Solace of Open Spaces – Gretel Ehrlich

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Watch a NASA Scientist and a Yellow Puppet Explore Greenland’s Melting Glaciers

Mother Jones

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For a sign that Josh Willis isn’t your typical NASA scientist, let’s start with the name of his major new climate study: Oceans Melting Greenland. That’s “OMG,” if your mind isn’t the sort to instantly elide everything into texting lingo.

Willis, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, likes to inject a little humor into the science of climate change, taking to the stage and to YouTube in the hopes of spurring his audience to action. On this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, he’s joined by special guest “Dick Dangerfield,” the swashbuckling NASA pilot who stars in Willis’ new comedy web series, “The Adventures of Dick Dangerfield.” Oh, and Dick is also a puppet. You can watch the first episode above.

Willis and Dangerfield talk with co-host Kishore Hari about NASA’s mission to study Greenland’s melting ice and its massive climate-altering potential.Greenland contains enough ice to raise sea levels 20 feet if it all melted,” Willis says. “The big question is how fast it’s going to melt.”

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Most research takes a top-down approach to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Willis says, examining the flow of water as it melts off the surface of the glaciers. But due to changing ocean temperatures, the ice around the island’s edges is disappearing even more quickly than it is at the center. That’s partly due to Greenland’s unique geography; the massive glaciers “literally have a toe in the water,” he explains. They flow directly into deep ocean water that is saltier and warmer than the water near the surface. The deeper water, which is typically a few degrees Celsius above the melting point, nibbles away more ice in the warm months than can be replenished over the winter, causing the glaciers to gradually recede.

Greenland’s glaciers run directly into the ocean, plunging into warmer, saltier water beneath the surface that’s melting them from below. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech

But the exact mechanisms for this process remain poorly understood, Willis says. Scientists with the OMG project measure the heights of glaciers each year using airborne radar. They also torpedo sensors into the surrounding ocean to record temperature and salinity. In the interactions between the glacial ice and ocean water, the scientists are looking for signs of a runaway melting process similar to what has been feared in western Antarctica, where climate models suggest rapid melting could contribute to more than three feet of sea level rise by 2100.

Beyond sea level rise, scientists worry that an influx of cold freshwater from Greenland’s melting ice could itself alter the climate, bringing changes to the Atlantic currents that regulate the weather conditions of surrounding landmasses. Some regions could see an uptick in extreme weather, Willis says, while others could see extra sea level rise. But we’re unlikely to know the precise effects until we observe them happening.

But for all the gloomy uncertainty, Willis says he tries to remain optimistic about the future of Greenland’s ice. Though some melting and sea level rise is inevitable, there’s still time to avoid the biggest consequences, he says. “The question is, do you want to get hit in the head with a pingpong ball or a bowling ball?”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.

Image: Josef Hanus/Shutterstock

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Watch a NASA Scientist and a Yellow Puppet Explore Greenland’s Melting Glaciers

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Extreme heat? Check. Ice loss? Check. Any other records we can shatter?

Extreme heat? Check. Ice loss? Check. Any other records we can shatter?

By on Apr 20, 2016commentsShare

The world has been breaking climate records left and right. Here’s the short list:

2015 was by far the hottest year since record-keeping began in 1880, shattering the record we just set in 2014.
The first three months of 2016 have already reached new highs.
The past 11 months globally were the hottest in 137 years of records.
A record amount of the Arctic Ocean never froze this winter. And Greenland’s ice started melting at its earliest date yet.
Carbon levels in the atmosphere showed their biggest-ever annual jump last year, according to readings at NOAA’s Mauna Loa observatory.

El Niño is partly to blame for warmer-than-usual temperatures, but scientists say we wouldn’t be seeing this record-breaking streak if global warming weren’t also fueling extreme temperatures.

Looking over this list of dubious accomplishments, I wondered what climate records we haven’t shattered in the last few years. So I asked a handful of scientists what’s left to fall.

Hot, hot, hot

Though the globe as a whole has experienced record heat, there’s enough regional variation that plenty of local records remain, former White House science advisor and Woods Hole Research Center President Phil Duffy said. And extreme weather and “natural” disasters — record storms, drought, and heat waves, for instance — are bound to occur all over the map.

“The spot where record rains occur moves from one month and year to the next,” Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told me via email. “The same with wildfires. … If not where you are then somewhere not that far away, and your turn will come sooner or later.”

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann wrote that “eventually we would expect that the all-time record for maximum daily temperature will be broken this decade or in the decades ahead in every city of the world. To date, this is only true for some percent of locations. Over time, that percent will approach 100 percent.”

Adios, ice

Scientists who study ice at the poles say there are still records standing in their field. “Some places haven’t warmed very much yet — Antarctica for instance — and so records there (in sea ice or temperature) are not falling at the same rate,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (That’s not true in the Arctic, though, which has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world.)

And believe it or not,  there’s still a record from 1940 that we have shattered yet: That’s the year when ice broke up in Alaska’s frozen Tanana River at its earliest date. (We know because folks like to bet on it.)

Another record the world appears to be on track for breaking around 2050: A summer when all the Arctic sea ice melts. Scientists think this hasn’t happened in 10,000 years, and even then it isn’t clear that the Arctic Ocean was completely ice-free. Ice has covered the poles for millions of years.

Altogether, it seems like there’s only one kind of record we’re in no danger of breaking anytime soon: the cold ones. The last time the planet saw a record-cold month was 99 years ago.

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Extreme heat? Check. Ice loss? Check. Any other records we can shatter?

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The scientist who first warned of climate change says it’s much worse than we thought

The scientist who first warned of climate change says it’s much worse than we thought

By on 22 Mar 2016 10:11 amcommentsShare

The rewards of being right about climate change are bittersweet. James Hansen should know this better than most — he warned of this whole thing before Congress in 1988, when he was director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies. At the time, the world was experiencing its warmest five-month run since we started recording temperatures 130 years earlier. Hansen said, “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

Fast forward 28 years and, while we’re hardly out of the Waffle House yet, we know much more about climate change science. Hansen is still worried that the rest of us aren’t worried enough.

Last summer, prior to countries’ United Nations negotiations in Paris, Hansen and 16 collaborators authored a draft paper that suggested we could see at least 10 feet of sea-level rise in as few as 50 years. If that sounds alarming to you, it is — 10 feet of sea-level rise is more than enough to effectively kick us out of even the most well-endowed coastal cities. Stitching together archaeological evidence of past climate change, current observations, and future-telling climate models, the authors suggested that even a small amount of global warming can rack up enormous consequences — and quickly.

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However the paper, publicized before it had been through peer review, elicited a mix of shock and skepticism, with some journalists calling the news a “bombshell” but a number of scientists urging deeper consideration.

Now, the final version of the paper has been published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. It’s been reviewed and lightly edited, but its conclusions are still shocking — and still contentious.

So what’s the deal? The authors highlight several of threats they believe we’ll face this century, including many feet of sea-level rise, a halting of major ocean circulatory currents, and an outbreak of super storms. These are the big threats we’ve been afraid of — and Hansen et al. say they could be here before we know it — well before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sanctioned climate models predict.

Here we help you understand their new paper:

NASA

Sea-level rise

The scientists estimate that existing climate models aren’t accounting well enough for current ice loss off of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Right now, Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets both contribute under or near 1 millimeter to sea-level rise every year; they each contain enough stored ice to drive up ocean levels by 20 and 200 feet, respectively.

This study suggests that, since the rate of ice loss is increasing, we should think of it not as a straight line but as an exponential curve, doubling every few years. But how much time it takes to double makes a big difference. Right now, measurements of ice loss aren’t clear enough to even make a strong estimate about how long that period might be. Is it 10 years or is it 40? It’s hard to say based on the limited data we have now, which would make a big difference either way.

But then again, we don’t even know that ice loss is exponential. Ian Joughin — a University of Washington researcher unaffiliated with the paper and who has studied the tipping points of Antarctic glaciers — put it this way: Think about the stock market in the ’80s. If you observed a couple years of accelerating growth, and decided that rate would double every 4 years — you’d have something like 56,000 points in the Dow Jones Industrial by now.

Or if stocks aren’t your thing, think about that other exponentially expanding force of nature: bacteria. Certain colonies of bacteria can double their population in a matter of hours. Can they do this forever? No, or else we’d be nothing but bacteria right now (and while we’re certainly a high percentage of bacteria, there’s still room for a couple other things).

Nature tends to put limits on exponential growth, Joughin points out — and the same probably goes for ice loss: “There’s only so fast you can move ice out of an ice sheet,” Joughin explained. While some ice masses may be collapsing at an accelerating rate, others won’t be as volatile.

This means, while some parts of ice sheet collapse may very well proceed exponentially, we can’t expect such simple mathematics to model anything in the real world except the terror spike of the Kingda Ka.

Shutterstock

Ocean turnover

Mmm mm, ocean turnover: Is it another word for a sushi roll or a fundamental process that keeps the climate relatively stable and moderate?

That’s right — we’re talking the Atlantic Meridonal Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, and other currents like it.

As cold meltwater flows off of glaciers and ice sheets at enormous rates, it pools at the ocean’s surface, trapping the denser but warmer saltwater beneath it. This can seriously mess with the moving parts of the ocean, the so-called “conveyor belts” that cycle deep nutrient-rich water to the surface. These slow currents are driven by large-scale climate processes, like wind, and drive others, like the carbon cycle. But they also rely on gradients in temperature and density to run; if too much cold water from the glaciers pools at the surface, the whole conveyor belt could stutter to a stop.

In the North Atlantic, this would mean waters get colder, while the tropics, denied their influx of colder water, would heat up precipitously. Hansen says we’re already seeing the beginnings of AMOC’s slowdown: There’s a spot of unusually cool water hanging out off of Greenland, while the U.S. East Coast continues to see warmer and warmer temperatures. Hansen said it plainly in a call with reporters: “I think this is the beginning of substantial slowdown of the AMOC.”

NASA

Superstorms

Pointing to giant hunks of rock that litter the shore of the Bahamas, among other evidence of ancient climates, the study’s authors suggest that past versions of Earth may have featured superstorms capable of casually tossing boulders like bored Olympians.

And as the temperature gradient between the tropic and the polar oceans gets steeper, thanks to that slowing of ocean-mixing currents, we could see stronger storms, too.

This is surprisingly intuitive: Picture a temperature gradient like a hill, with the high temperatures up at the top and the low temperatures down at the bottom. As the highs get higher and the lows get lower, that hill gets a lot steeper — and the storms are the bowling balls you chuck down the hill. A bowling ball will pick up a lot more speed on a steep hill, and hurt a lot more when it finally runs into something. Likewise, by the time these supercharged storms are slamming into coasts in the middle latitudes, they will be carrying a whole lot of deadly force with them.

So what does it all mean?

Whether other scientists quibble over these results or not — and they probably will — the overall message is hardly new. It’s bad, you guys. It might be really, truly, deeply bad, or it might be slightly less bad. Either way, says Hansen, what we know for sure is that it’s time to do something about it. “Among the top experts, there’s a pretty strong agreement that we’ve reached a point where this is truly urgent,” he said.

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So Hansen is frustrated once more with the failure of humanity to respond adequately. The result he’d hoped for when he released an early version of the paper online last summer was to get world leaders to come together in Paris to agree on a global price on carbon. As he told Grist’s Ben Adler at the time, “It’s going to happen.” (It didn’t happen, but some other stuff did.)

Still, true urgency would require more of us than just slowing the growth of emissions — it requires stopping them altogether. In a paper published in 2013, Hansen found that we have to cut 6 percent of our use of carbon-based fuels every year, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change.

Carbon prices and emissions cuts are more the purview of politicians and diplomats, but if anything, Hansen has shown he is unafraid to stray beyond the established protocol of academic science.

“I think scientists, who are trained to be objective, have something to offer by analyzing the problem all the way to the changes that are needed in order to address it,” he said on a press call. “That 6 percent reduction — that’s not advocacy, that’s science. And then I would advocate that we do that!”

And to pre-empt the haters, Hansen wants you to remember one thing. “Skepticism is the life blood of science. You can be sure that some scientists will find some aspects in our long paper that they will think of differently,” he said. “And that’s normal.”

So while scientists continue their debate over whether the ice sheets are poised to collapse in the next 50 years or the next 500, the prognosis is the same: The future is wetter, stranger, stormier unless we make serious moves to alternative energy sources now. Will we? Maybe. We’ve started but we still have a long, long way to go. If it’s a race between us and the ice sheets, neither I nor James Hansen nor anyone else can tell you for sure who will win.

Hey, no one said telling the future was easy.

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The scientist who first warned of climate change says it’s much worse than we thought

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These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

Mother Jones

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Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.

It wasn’t hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.

“We’re nearing into the coast of Bathurst,” he said. “We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don’t think it looked very nice, and it didn’t feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat.”

His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.

Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.

In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as “an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness.”

It’s not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:

That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, ESA scientist Mark Drinkwater said.

Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.

Rest in peace, guys.

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These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

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

Mother Jones

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Isn’t ice supposed to be white? Jason Box

This story originally appeared in Slate and is republished here as part of our Climate Desk collaboration.

Jason Box knows ice. That’s why what’s happened this year concerns him so much.

Box just returned from a trip to Greenland. Right now, the ice there is…black:

Dark ice is helping Greenland’s glaciers retreat. Jason Box

Crevasses criss-cross the Greenland ice sheet, allowing melt water to descend deep beneath the ice. Jason Box

This year, Greenland’s ice was the darkest it’s ever been. Jason Box

Box and his team are trying to discover what made this year’s melt season so unusual. Jason Box

Box marks his study sites, appropriately, with black flags. Jason Box

Box’s ‘Dark Snow’ project is the first scientific expedition to Greenland to be crowdfunded. Jason Box

The ice in Greenland this year isn’t just a little dark—it’s record-setting dark. Box says he’s never seen anything like it. I spoke to Box by phone earlier this month, just days after he returned from his summer field research campaign.

“I was just stunned, really,” Box told me.

The photos he took this summer in Greenland are frightening. But their implications are even more so. Just like black cars are hotter to the touch than white ones on sunny summer days, dark ice melts much more quickly.

As a member of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Box travels to Greenland from his home in Copenhagen to track down the source of the soot that’s speeding up the glaciers’ disappearance. He aptly calls his crowdfunded scientific survey Dark Snow.

This year was another above-average melt season in Greenland. National Snow and Ice Data Center

There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming. Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.

This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “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.”

Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.

Box ran these numbers exclusively for Slate, and what he found shocked him. Since comprehensive satellite measurements began in 2000, never before have Arctic wildfires been as powerful as this year. In fact, over the last two or three years, Box calculated that Arctic fires have been burning at a rate that’s double that of just a decade ago. Box felt this finding was so important that he didn’t want to wait for peer review, and instead decided to publish first on Slate. He’s planning on submitting these and other recent findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.

Arctic and sub-Arctic fires were more powerful in 2014 than ever recorded before. Jason Box/NASA

Box’s findings are in line with recent research that shows the Arctic is in the midst of dramatic change.

In total, more than 3.3 million hectares burned in Canada’s Northwest Territories alone this year—nearly 9 times the long term average—resulting in a charred area bigger than the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. That figure includes the massive Birch Creek Complex, which could end up being the biggest wildfire in modern Canadian history. In July, it spread a smoke plume all the way to Portugal.

In an interview with Canada’s National Post earlier this year, NASA scientist Douglas Morton said, “It’s a major event in the life of the earth system to have a huge set of fires like what you are seeing in Western Canada.”

Box says the real challenge is to rank what fraction of the soot he finds on the Greenland ice is from forest fires, and what is from other sources, like factories. Box says the decline of snow cover in other parts of the Arctic (like Canada) is also exposing more dirt to the air, which can then be more easily transported by the wind. Regardless of their ultimate darkening effect on Greenland, this year’s vast Arctic fires have become a major new source of greenhouse gas emissions from the thawing Arctic. Last year, NASA scientists found “amazing” levels of carbon dioxide and methane emanating from Alaskan permafrost.

Earlier this year, Box made headlines for a strongly worded statement along these lines:

That tweet landed Box in a bit of hot water with his department, which he said now has to approve his media appearances. Still, Box’s sentiment is inspiring millions. His “f’d” quote is serving as the centerpiece of a massive petition (with nearly 2 million signatures at last count) that the activist organization Avaaz will deliver to “national, local, and international leaders” at this month’s global warming rally in New York City on Sept. 21.

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

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