Marching for Science on the Melty Ice Sheets of Greenland

What better place to stand up for climate science than at the frontlines of climate change?

April 21, 2017

Scientists were among the protestors the Women's March in Washington, D.C.

duluoz cats/Flickr

This story originally appeared on Climate Central.

Field research season is getting underway in Greenland. Scientists are racing to the island for the few months a year when the towering ice sheet is accessible.

Despite the scramble to get as much research done as possible in such a tiny window, scientists will take a moment on Saturday to march in solidarity with thousands of other researchers around the globe. Yes, the March for Science is happening in two remote outposts in one of the most remote countries on earth. One event is officially sanctioned, the other a rogue march (well, actually ski). But both are being driven by scientists who want to see science used to inform rational, evidence-based decisions.

Climate science will be the driving theme at both. After all, the majority of the scientists are in Greenland to study the impact of climate change on the expansive ice sheet that blankets the island. Their work is crucial for policymakers along the coast who will have to deal with the ice as it melts into the sea.

Mike MacFerrin, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado studying the ice sheet, is organizing the official Greenland edition of the March for Science in the tiny outpost of Kangerlussuaq (population: 499). The location is out there, sitting on the western edge of Greenland at the end of a fjord bearing its name. The route is short, covering the equivalent of three city blocks on one of the town’s handful of well-worn streets.The marchers are few, with only a dozen or so researchers in town and the aforementioned small population.

But those things don’t matter. What matters is the symbolism. MacFerrin and his fellow marchers are studying the wholesale changes afoot in a remote place. Their work will have huge ramifications for the millions who call the coast home around the world, though. “What happens here in the coming decades, literally the entire world will feel,” MacFerrin said. Bringing attention to it is very much in line with the March for Science’s mission to “call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”

After the march, MacFerrin will head to the heart of the ice sheet on Monday to begin his field research. Another researcher is already there, organizing a second unofficial March for Science.

A fjord in eastern Greenland

NASA Earth Observatory

Jason Box, a Denmark-based ice sheet researcher, is headed for his remote research sites on the ice’s flat white expanse. His 25-mile ski traverse to sample sites where he measures snow is a research trip first and foremost, but he said it’s important to march in solidarity. The data he’s collecting is essential for understanding what comes next for the ice sheet. “While the losses of ice have received so much attention, the inputs (of snow) that nourishes the ice has received far less attention,” he said. “But it’s just as important.” The research involves rulers and scales to make seemingly simple measurements that are crucial for ground truthing a complex array of satellite and aircraft estimates as well as climate models.

Greenland has lost roughly 3,600 gigatons of ice since 2002. That ice has contributed to sea-level rise as well as a cooling of waters in the North Atlantic that’s slowed down ocean circulation. Understanding the state of the snow is crucial to understanding the fate of the ice sheet. Heavy snowfall can help insulate it from melt. If that snow gets covered by soot from wildfires—something that’s been happening in recent years—it can also speed up melt.

Though his march on the ice isn’t an officially sanctioned event, Box said it was important to stand in solidarity with other marchers and highlight science being done in real time. “We want to inspire other people to care about the environment. That’s our agenda, to draw attention to the natural world and why people should not neglect it,” he said.

MacFerrin echoed a similar sentiment. The boots on the ground from Washington, D.C., to Greenland is meant to send a signal that sound science is vital to decision makers, particularly when it comes to climate change. “It's time to stand up, not only for those actively doing science but for all who value the pursuit of the truth and evidence-based decision making,” he said. “The last decade has shown us that politicians will only listen if the public demands it, and it's time to make it a part of honest public conversation.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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