Jason Box speaks the language of Manhattans. Not the drink—the measuring unit.
As an expert on Greenland who has traveled 23 times to the massive, mile thick northern ice sheet, Box has shown an uncanny ability to predict major melts and breakoffs of Manhattan-sized ice chunks. A few years back, he foretold the release of a “4x Manhattans” piece of ice from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, one so big that once afloat it was dubbed an “ice island.” In a scientific paper published in February of 2012, Box further predicted “100% melt area over the ice sheet” within another decade of global warming. As it happened, the ice sheet’s surface almost completely melted just a month later in July—an event that, in Box’s words, “signals the beginning of the end for the ice sheet.”
Box, who will speak at next week’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., pulls no punches when it comes to attributing all of this to humans and their fossil fuels. “Those who claim it’s all cycles just don’t understand that humans are driving the cycle right now, and for the foreseeable future,” he says. And the coastal consequences of allowing Greenland to continue its melting—and pour 23 feet’s worth of sea level into the ocean over the coming centuries—are just staggering. “If you’re the mayor of Hamburg, or Shanghai, or Philadelphia, I think it’s in your job description that you think forward a century,” says Box. “They’re completely inundated by the year 2200.”
Unless, that is, something big changes—something big enough to start Greenland cooling, shifting its “mass balance” from ice loss to ice gain once again. But that would require us to reverse global climate change, in an ever-dwindling time frame for doing so.
Currently based at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State—with a joint appointment at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland—Box got his research start while an undergraduate at the University of Colorado-Boulder. As a senior, he traveled north with the Swiss glaciologist Konrad Steffen. In subsequent years, as his scientific career developed, Box increasingly began to think outside of… his last name. Rather than waiting on funding agencies, he teamed up with Greenpeace on a series of expeditions to document, and also dramatize, the ice sheet’s melting. He also began to set up time lapse cameras to observe the ice as it declines, something captured in the new documentary Chasing Ice, which features Box’s work.
Today, Box is trying to understand the feedback loops that may be driving a melting of Greenland that is much faster and more dramatic than many scientists expected. Take, for instance, melting on the ice’s sheet surface: Warmer or melting ice (or just plain meltwater) absorbs more sunlight than does healthy, cold ice. So as warmer temperatures melt the ice, the ice sheet absorbs more solar heat—melting even more. Another example: As Greenland melts, the massive ice sheet, more than two miles above sea level at its highest point, slumps in altitude. When that happens, more of the ice sheet is bathed in the warmer atmospheric temperatures that are found at lower elevations. So—you guessed it—it melts more.