Everything is connected; a catastrophic weather event in one hemisphere can have ripple effects on the other side of the globe. That is no news to climate scientists. But last summer, as the United States was in the throes of one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, climate scientist Jason Box, who studies Greenland's ice sheet, wondered about a direct link between those fires and the frightening speed at which the ice sheet was melting.
Among the fires last summer were large tundra blazes in Alaska and Canada. Box used weather analysis and computer models to show that smoke from those fires later passed over the Greenland ice sheet. Last summer also marked a catastrophic, unprecedented milestone in the loss of that ice sheet: 90 percent of the world's largest island was thawing in July.
Did the wildfires exacerbate that massive thaw? Box thinks they did, and now he's leading a fundraising effort to find out.
But after being denied a grant from the National Science Foundation, Box decided to turn to the masses. He is attempting to crowdfund an expedition to Greenland this summer in order to sample ice cores and study whether the wildfires are not just correlated to last summer's exceptional melting, but in fact caused it.
Snow's reflectivity (or "albedo" in science speech) starts to plummet when white snow turns to water, because water is darker and absorbs more of the sun's energy. This can reduce albedo to 60 percent. Add soot generated by wildfires and/or industrial emissions (transportation, etc.), which is deposited on the ice by traveling through the air, and the reflectivity falls much further, to south of 40 percent. This cranks up the melting all the more. Dirty snow melts faster than white snow.
Called the Dark Snow Project, Box's crowdfunding experiment germinated after he received some philanthropic seed money following the publication of a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibbon. It wasn't nearly enough to fund an expedition, says Box, but it was enough to get the ball rolling. After spending some of the money on Web design, he presented his findings about the movement of soot from the wildfires over Greenland at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in early December. He also used the attention to announce his latest project.
What followed has been steady and strong support, generated through various news stories, especially a piece published by Slate which Box says has driven more than half the traffic to the Dark Snow website.
So far, the effort has raised north of $70,000 of the $150,000 needed to run the expedition. "We have a Kickstarter campaign drafted and are going to launch it when we are within reach of the final funding goal," says Box, adding: "We are doing well on our own."
Is this the new reality? Will more and more scientists need to turn to the masses and to platforms like Kickstarter to get their funding? "Some funders say they're outraged that the government doesn’t support us, but the reality is that we are trying to get ahead of that," Box explains.
The quick "no" he received from the NSF to his initial request didn't surprise Box, because he'd been seeking money from the rapid funding program, which is generally used to fund research in the wake of a volcano or a similar event that requires a quick response. Plus, Box had recently received a rapid funding grant for another project. He says he could have held off and applied for government funding through other avenues, but that process would have taken at least a year and he wants to strike while the memory of last summer's fire season is still hot, so to speak.
"The 2012 wildfires captured the attention of the American public," he says. "Not just in Colorado but elsewhere, so the timing is good. Let's get there this summer."
Besides, Box likes to try new things. "It's like an experiment. I'm learning a ton about marketing and what motivates people and how to use the media to engage in citizen science," he says.
He says he's yet to find any animosity from the scientific community, either. "I spoke with program managers from NASA and NSF.... I was kind of apologizing to them. I don’t want to alienate them [by crowdfunding]. But they were like, 'No, no, this is exciting.'"
Still, the crowdfunding model does raise some concerns. With so much attention for the project coming from Slate, Box worries about uneven support. "Citizen science is attractive but not without a potential political bias when climate change is concerned. I doubt many donors are from the political right—their opinion leaders are messaging them away from climate change science support."
If it takes off, crowdfunded science could create a platform for more nimble, fast-paced research that isn't bogged down by bureaucracy.
But what if Box and his colleagues are able to prove a direct link between last summer's wildfires and accelerating glacial melt? Then what? "I expect wildfire management is possible," he says, "but only through the indirect policy of greenhouse gas emission reduction."