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The Dark, Dirty Coal Secret You Never Hear Anything About

Ice sheets are turning black from coal-fired industrial pollution and fires. This has terrible consequences for us all.

07/06/2017 9:14 AM IST | Updated 07/06/2017 9:15 AM IST
Jason Box
There's a major crack in the logic of those who think coal will save the world.

Why should it matter to you if the distant Greenland ice sheet turns black from a mixture of soot and industrial waste from coal-fired power stations? How is this of the faintest importance to anyone -- let alone those of us down here in Australia?

Allow us to explain.

Jason Box
This incredible aerial shot shows the Greenland ice sheet in 2014, a year in which there were a record number of forest fires in the northern hemisphere.

As you know, the biggest coal mine ever built in Australia appears likely to go ahead. This, despite a comprehensive report showing Adani's Carmichael mine makes no sense economically, environmentally or from a public health perspective.

The mine is especially bad news from a climate change point of view, because coal accounts for almost half of the world's CO2 emissions -- the gas which beyond even the faintest doubt is primarily responsible for human-caused global warming.

Burning coal indirectly fuels sea level rise by warming the atmosphere and oceans. But coal dust and other airborne particles also directly fuel sea level rise by settling on ice and melting it quicker. It's like the way a dark car or shirt traps the sun's rays.

These strangely beautiful yet worrying photos from Denmark-based American climatologist and glaciologist Jason Box illustrate the problem.

Jason Box
Fun fact: An ice sheet is a sheet of ice so vast and thick that is covers all terrain -- as opposed to a glacier, which is essentially a frozen river constrained by terrain. There are only two ice sheets in the world, in Greenland and Antarctica. Both are melting rapidly.

The photos are from 2014, a year when an unprecedented number of forest fires raged across the northern hemisphere in what was then the warmest year on record. Jason Box has been going to Greenland for 25 years and he'd never seen anything like it.

There's again a fine layer of soot on the ice this year, Box told us from Greenland, where we caught up with him for episode 3 of our podcast series Breaking The Ice -- in which we meet the people BEHIND the climate science.

Click below to subscribe to the Breaking The Ice podcast by HuffPost Australia on iTunes.

So remind us, Jason. Why does black dust on the ice matter?

"If you took all the 7.2 billion people on the planet... [the Greenland ice melt] would be equivalent to a bathtub of fresh water every day of the year every year in the past 10 years," he said.

Which is an awful lot. And remember, the more the sea level rises and the more the ocean warms, the worse is it for everyone -- not least the Great Barrier Reef.

Box went on to explain the frightening concept of feedback loops to us. In essence, they're problems caused by climate change which accentuate other problems. The darkening of the ice is a classic example. Warming caused it, and now it's accentuating further melting.

Jason Box
Like a cracked clay pan in the desert, but icier.

"It's too late to hope that this problem's going away," Box says in our podcast.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better, and the best thing we can do is start tackling this problem so our children and grandchildren don't blame us for being total morons."

The word "morons" is hardly a scientific term. But then Box has a history of speaking from the heart. In 2014, in response to some data he saw on warming Arctic waters, he tweeted this. It got him in a lot of hot water, if you'll excuse the pun.

"I don't regret sharing that concern because it's a genuine concern," Box tells us in the podcast about that tweet in hindsight.

"I got a lot more serious about this when I became a parent because it's really our kids who are inheriting this crisis. It's going to be harder for them than it is for us. We're really just seeing the beginnings of this crisis and I'm afraid to say it's going to get a lot worse.

"The best we can do right now is to take some of the edge of of this thing."

Experts say that one way we could take the edge off rising oceans, the warming atmosphere and the countless associated problems is to transition from coal to clean energy, painful though it may be at first. This week in Australia, the opposite happened.

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