Greenland State Change and Open Science

Greenland has been at the center of an enormous high pressure cell for the past couple of weeks:

This means direct sunlight, and unusually warm temperatures. And there is evidence that the top of the ice sheet is starting to melt.

This has been discussed at length, as all things Arctic-glaciology are, at Neven’s.

An especially interesting twist is this animated GIF, discovered by Steve Coulter with some extra processing by Ethan O’Connor, and following up on a comment by another commenter there. This is a radar image of Greenland over the ten days ending July 14, and it shows an abrupt state change, for which preliminary investigation of past records shows no precedent. Although visual imagery shows no comparably dramatic change, it does show (as the graph above indicates) substantially unprecedented darkening of the surface. It is reasonable to conclude that the persistent above-freezing temperatures at the top of the ice cap, with no known precedent, have created enough liquid water at the surface to change the radar reflectivity in some way.

There are two lessons here. One is that like astronomy, climatology can benefit from an enthusiastic amateur community and should do whatever it can to encourage, rather than discourage, broad participation. This radar image is exactly the sort of thing that specialists in their various silos and burrows might conceivably neglect that an amateur would call attention to. The second is that Greenland may be melting from the top, at least a bit. This matters because the albedo will take a very long to fully recover. Further melting from the top now becomes more likely.


In a tangentially relevant story, the UK has now implemented a national policy that all publicly funded data be publicly available within two years. This is a huge step forward. Can we get something like this elsewhere? Dr. Chu?

It is worth considering the extent to which the enemies of climate science have contributed to the open science movement. In the large, if they continue to obfuscate the real risks we face and the real steps we must take, this positive outcome will be greatly outweighed by the damage they do. And let’s be clear, email is not data and most actions by scientists are not suitable subjects for freedom of information investigations. Still, to the extent that their confused howling contributed to the democratization of science, they have actually done us all a service.

That said, note that it is not the “contrarians” who have achieved the Greenland animation, but the smaller community of amateurs who are deeply concerned about climate change. This is hardly a surprise.

The contrarians are opposed to evidence, and only look into it for purposes of casting doubt upon it. That is, they take the ample opportunities to glean confusion out of complexity. This is the opposite of science, which is to tease truth out of complexity, and which the radar sequence achieves at least at a visceral level.

In the end, open science will give them so much more to obfuscate about. But it’s hard to imagine that opening science will especially enable much additional damage. They have plenty to obfuscate about already, and if data is open as a matter of course then the random harassment/denial of service attack will need to find some other form.


  1. I'm afraid you're behind the times, Michael. The new form, witch hunts a la Cooch, has already appeared. IIRC Cooch and his unthinking tank friends don't make much of a pretense of caring about data.

    Re the GIS, we await with bated breath the GRACE results for this season. I really, really, really want Hansen's doubling speculation to be wrong, but this new information makes me wonder how likely that is.

  2. Michael: "Still, to the extent that their confused howling contributed to the democratization of science, they have actually done us all a service."

    The confused howling includes "drop what you're doing and give me data now," "obey our unfunded mandate to preserve all work product even if it's scribblings on a napkin," and "drown government in a bathtub."

    There's a problem there with consistency, as usual.

    UK's open access rules are zero sum funded; access will slow down other work. More bad news in a country suffering from the austerity fad but hopefully still worth it in the long run? Maybe a few people will even bother looking at all the liberated data? UK is good at measuring everything (or was, can they still afford that?) so perhaps some access statistics will be published along with everything else.

  3. That graph is soon going to need a scale change if this year does not fully reverse.

    Interesting how the major excursive dip appears and lines up neatly for the past 5 years, except for 2008. What was different about 2008? Anyway, whatever's wrong with the albedo in mid-late summer seems to be sort of "stuck" in recent years.

  4. The Guardian today, quoting a NASA bod: "This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: was this real or was it due to a data error?"

    And another: "I think it's fair to say that this is unprecedented".

    Is anyone able to help out us lay-folk with putting this in context? I understand Greenland is a climate freight-train - likely to be unstoppable once melting sets in. But do we know what the tipping point looks like, how does this fit in?

    I was speaking to a Greenland modeller last week; it appears there's still a lot they don't know about how it's going to respond, so perhaps no-one knows the answers to this. But can we at least come up with a bounding box of possibilities?

  5. Ok, about the 150 years. Revkin put up a graph that this information was gleamed from. Unfortunately I can't get at the paper, so just looking at the chart, the 150 years comes from averaging 'melt' years happening 8 times over the past 1500 years of so, coming out to about every 180 years. But if you look at the graph you see that almost all of them happened during the MWP, where the temperature N. Hemisphere was quite warm!

    Am I wrong here? Anyone read the paper? So this isn't a cyclic event, it happens a lot when it gets warm. So do we really need to wait around to decide whether this is important or not?

  6. After an update at Revkin's, a paper that goes back 10,000 years with a graph , shows the same during the Holocene optimum (about 6,000 years ago).

    The reason I bring this up is because the way it was written in the press release made it sound like you set your watch to this melt, "this event is right on time". thermometer perhaps?

  7. Can they also tell from the ice cores how much melt there was, how extensive (I presume if it was melting at Summit it was melting elsewhere as well), and how it compares to what we say two weeks ago, and might see again this weekend?

  8. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, July 22, 2012 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Single Planet

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