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Contribution of light-absorbing impurities in snow to Greenland’s darkening since 2009


The surface energy balance and mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet depends on the albedo of snow, which governs the amount of solar energy that is absorbed. The observed decline of Greenland’s albedo over the past decade1,2,3 has been attributed to an enhanced growth of snow grains as a result of atmospheric warming1,2. Satellite observations show that, since 2009, albedo values even in springtime at high elevations have been lower than the 2003–2008 average. Here we show, using a numerical snow model, that the decrease in albedo cannot be attributed solely to grain growth enhancement. Instead, our analysis of remote sensing data indicates that the springtime darkening since 2009 stems from a widespread increase in the amount of light-absorbing impurities in snow, as well as in the atmosphere. We suggest that the transport of dust from snow-free areas in the Arctic that are experiencing earlier melting of seasonal snow cover4 as the climate warms may be a contributing source of impurities. In our snow model simulations, a decrease in the albedo of fresh snow by 0.01 leads to a surface mass loss of 27 Gt yr−1, which could induce an acceleration of Greenland’s mass loss twice as large as over the past two decades5. Future trends in light-absorbing impurities should therefore be considered in projections of Greenland mass loss.

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Figure 1: Observed broadband diffuse albedo above 2,000 m a.s.l.
Figure 2: Simulated and observed broadband albedo averaged over the GrIS above 2,000 m a.s.l for the May–June period from 2003 to 2013.
Figure 3: Evolution of impurity index.
Figure 4: Numerical estimation of the impact of increased impurity content on the surface mass balance (SMB).


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The authors are grateful to F. Domine, C. Carmagnola, R. Stones, M. Bergin, P. Wright, D. Voisin, C. Derksen, S. Nyeki, M. Tedesco, X. Faïn, A. Ribes and E. Pougatch for help and discussions. We thank B. Holben, AERONET PI, for his efforts in establishing and maintaining the Kangerlussuaq and Thule sites. This study was supported by the French ANR MONISNOW programme ANR-11-JS56-005-01 and by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme, under Grant Agreement 226520, COMBINE project. MODIS data were kindly provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center and by the US Geological Survey EROS Data Center. We thank J. Chappellaz and A. Wegner for collection of Greenland snow samples at NEEM site. The NEEM work was supported by the French ANR programme NEEM (ANR-07-VULN-09-001). LGGE and CNRM-GAME/CEN are part of LabEx OSUG@2020 (ANR10 LABX56).

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M.D. processed satellite data and ran the radiative transfer code. E.B. and M.G. ran the mass balance simulations. G.P. and Q.L. contributed to the interpretation of satellite measurements. J-R.P. collected measurements at NEEM. M.M. and B.J. analysed the atmospheric chemical reanalysis. M.D., E.B., G.P. and S.M. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to M. Dumont.

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Dumont, M., Brun, E., Picard, G. et al. Contribution of light-absorbing impurities in snow to Greenland’s darkening since 2009. Nature Geosci 7, 509–512 (2014).

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