How could the single country of Greenland, which spans only 836,300 mi² in surface area, be contributing to the rapid warming of a planet more than 200 times its size? At first thought, one might assume that there is not much that a relatively uninhabited space could have on such a large-scale.

However, the country does have enormous effects on Earth. It does so through albedo, or the reflectivity of a surface. Much of the Earth’s reflectivity comes from natural sources. Dark-colored surfaces, such as forests and oceans absorb solar radiation, contributing to the warming of Earth. Alternatively, light-colored surfaces, such as ice sheets and deserts reflect the Sun’s radiation, cooling the planet. The video below demonstrates the albedo’s effects on Earth.

As the planet warms, rising temperatures cause Earth’s ice sheets to melt more rapidly. As the ice melts, there is less area of light-colored surface to reflect solar radiation and more dark-colored surface area of the ocean to absorb the heat. This further accelerates the rate of warming in a process called positive, or amplifying, feedback.

In an article for the Washington Post, Marco Tedesco, a researcher studying the albedo effect in Greenland, described this feedback as “melting cannibalism” because the melting ice is “feeding on itself,” causing even more ice to melt.

Earth’s two largest ice sheets, Antarctica and Greenland, are particularly large contributors to the albedo effect. Just a few months ago, the fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica broke adrift. Many scientists are concerned that warming air and melting ice caused the shelf to become less compact, causing the initial cracks, and, ultimately, completely separating the shelf from the rest of Antarctica.

Warming temperatures and the albedo effect may be responsible for the recent separation of the Larsen-C Ice Shelf from the rest of Antarctica. Larsen-C Ice Shelf Crack (29 September 2017), Antarctica / O.V.E.R.V.I.E.W. / Creative Commons

So, as humans, why should we care? It’s easy to say that there’s nothing we can do to stop the Sun from emitting solar radiation or that it’s impossible to prevent arctic ice from melting. But the answer is simple: by knowing what is causing climate change, we can be much better equipped to develop innovative, successful solutions. Whether climate change is caused by humans or not, it is safe to say that the role of reflection on icy surfaces does have an effect on the increasing temperatures of the planet.  

For example, understanding the albedo effect can help to develop strategies to combat climate change, especially those related to mitigation, or halting the causes of an issue before it can have major effects. For instance, many climate change policymakers suggest mitigating global warming by painting roofs, roads, and other urban areas a lighter, white color. Farmers could play a role by cultivating reflective crops, such as those with more waxy and hairy leaf surfaces. Likewise, manipulating environmental processes on a large-scale through geoengineering and injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere can help the Earth to reflect solar radiation.

Still, others argue that doing so will be ineffective because urban areas and croplands do not cover nearly as much surface area as the melting ice. In other words, while such a strategy may slow down the rate at which global warming occurs, it is unlikely that it will stop the process completely.

Regardless of these potential strategies, educating ourselves on the albedo effect and other related causes of climate change will allow us to find the best methods of preparation.


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