Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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).


  1. Box, J. E. et al. Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: Thermodynamics and atmospheric drivers. The Cryosphere 6, 821–839 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Tedesco, M. et al. The role of albedo and accumulation in the 2010 melting record in Greenland. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 014005 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Stroeve, J., Box, J. E., Wang, Z., Schaaf, C. & Barrett, A. Re-evaluation of MODIS MCD43 Greenland albedo accuracy and trends. Remote Sens. Environ. 138, 199–214 ( 2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Derksen, C. & Brown, R. Spring snow cover extent reductions in the 2008–2012 period exceeding climate model projections. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L19504 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., Van den Broeke, M. R., Monaghan, A. & Lenaerts, J. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05503 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Shepherd, A. et al. A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Science 38, 1183–1189 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Tedesco, M. et al. Evidence and analysis of 2012 Greenland records from spaceborne observations, a regional climate model and reanalysis data. The Cryosphere 7, 615–630 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Imbrie, J. & Imbrie, J. Z. Modeling the climatic response to orbital variations. Science 207, 943–953 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Warren, S. G. Optical properties of snow. Rev. Geophys. 20, 67–89 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Picard, G., Domine, F., Krinner, G., Arnaud, L. & Lefebvre, E. Inhibition of the positive snow-albedo feedback by precipitation in interior Antarctica. Nature Clim. Change 2, 795–798 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hall Dorothy, K. et al. Variability in the surface temperature and melt extent of the Greenland ice sheet from MODIS. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 2114–2120 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Vionnet, V. et al. The detailed snowpack scheme Crocus and its implementation in SURFEX v72. Geosci. Model Dev. 5, 773–791 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Wientjes, I. G. M., Van de Wal, R. S. W., Reichart, G. J., Sluijs, A. & Oerlemans, J. Dust from the dark region in the western ablation zone of the Greenland ice sheet. The Cryosphere 5, 589–601 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Painter, T. H. et al. Response of Colorado River runoff to dust radiative forcing in snow. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 17125–17130 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Doherty, S. J., Warren, S. G., Grenfell, T. C., Clarke, A. D. & Brandt, R. E. Light-absorbing impurities in Arctic snow. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 10, 11647–11680 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Petit, J-R. et al. The NEEM record of aeolian dust: Contributions from Coulter counter measurements. EGU Gen. Assem. Conf. Abstr. 15, 6255 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Zege, E., Katsev, I., Malinka, A., Prikhach, A. & Polonsky, I. New algorithm to retrieve the effective snow grain size and pollution amount from satellite data. Ann. Glaciol. 49, 139–144 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Davies, S. M. et al. Widespread dispersal of Icelandic tephra: How does the Eyjafjöll eruption of 2010 compare to past Icelandic events? J. Quat. Sci. 25, 605–611 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Wientjes, I. G. M. & Oerlemans, J. An explanation for the dark region in the western melt zone of the Greenland ice sheet. The Cryosphere 4, 261–268 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hoiczyk, E. & Baumeister, W. The junctional pore complex, a prokaryotic secretion organelle, is the molecular motor underlying gliding motility in cyanobacteria. Current Biol. 8, 1161–1168 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Istomina, L. G., Hoyningen-Huene, W. V., Kokhanovsky, A. A., Schultz, E. & Burrows, J. P. Remote sensing of aerosols over snow using infrared AATSR observations. Atmos. Meas. Tech. 4, 1133–1145 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schultz, E. et al. Results of a pilot study on the climate relevant particle burden on Greenland. Eur. Aerosol Conf. T160A07 (2009).

  23. Hegg, D. A., Warren, S. G., Grenfell, T. C., Doherty, S. J. & Clarke, A. D. Sources of light-absorbing aerosol in Arctic snow and their seasonal variation. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 10, 10923–10938 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Stohl, A. et al. Pan-Arctic enhancements of light absorbing aerosol concentrations due to North American boreal forest fires during summer 2004. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D22214 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Doherty, S. J. et al. Observed vertical redistribution of black carbon and other insoluble light-absorbing particles in melting snow. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 1–17 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Flanner, M. Arctic climate sensitivity to local black carbon. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 1840–1851 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Fettweis, X., Tedesco, M., Broeke, M. & Ettema, J. Melting trends over the Greenland ice sheet (1958–2009) from spaceborne microwave data and regional climate models. The Cryosphere 5, 359–375 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Brutel-Vuilmet, C., Ménégoz, M. & Krinner, G. An analysis of present and future seasonal Northern Hemisphere land snow cover simulated by CMIP5 coupled climate models. The Cryosphere 7, 67–80 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Klein, A. G. & Stroeve, J. Development and validation of a snow albedo algorithm for the MODIS instrument. Ann. Glaciol. 34, 45–52 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Stamnes, K., Tsay, S-C., Wiscombe, W. & Jayaweera, K. Numerically stable algorithm for discrete ordinate-method radiative transfer in multiple scattering and emitting layered media. Appl. Opt. 27, 2502–2509 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Dumont.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 4936 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing