Ice man: Ohio State's Jason Box

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

The dinghy is just 10 feet long. A flimsy thing, really. It takes Jason Box an hour of stomping on a portable foot pump to inflate the buoyant craft, the only thing protecting him from the frigid, deadly water. Box wears an orange wetsuit as he stands at the edge of a massive melt lake in Greenland, one of thousands that form anew each year as the warm summer air and the sun's powerful rays shrink the huge, jagged glaciers.

Box, a climatologist and associate professor of geography at Ohio State University, and his small team arrived via helicopter, the only way in. Until this day, there had been just one other known boat trip here. These temporary lakes are isolated and precarious. Shafts created from massive breaks in the ice can form underneath their shimmering surfaces-the draining water making its way from the bottom of the ice sheet to the bedrock, as much as a mile and a half deep in some places. An 11.6-billion-gallon melt lake drained almost completely in a fleeting 90 minutes, faster than the torrent of water crashing violently over Niagara Falls, scientists recently reported.

Box is here to figure out something that sounds deceptively simple: How deep is this particular melt lake? Until this trip, the depth had been calculated using satellite data based on the sun's reflectivity-and the brilliant colors bouncing off the surface. But he wanted to confirm the findings by taking the measurement for himself.

So he and his crew get in their dinghies and navigate to the lake's center. But then the four-horsepower motor inexplicably quits. Accompanied by an experienced kayaker, Box thrusts his oars into the water to keep from drifting. The strength of the wind and the current begin to toss the tiny craft, though, sending it toward one of those shafts and possibly an icy tomb. Paddling for their lives, the men reverse direction a mere 100 feet from the shaft's opening.

As Box now recalls his adventure in 2005, he acknowledges that sacrificing one's life in the name of science might have its drawbacks. "In retrospect, it seems so foolish what we did." Yet, he talks about that day with the distance of a narrator, painstakingly justifying the risks by noting the scientific aims underpinning the expedition. He says his fieldwork served two missions: confirming the satellite data and validating and improving the information used in existing climate models.

Indeed, that treacherous trip bolstered the accuracy of formulas used to estimate the depths of the thousands of melt lakes forming each year. As did another trip in 2007-and as will another one this summer.

After all, as he puts it, there is "big science" to be had.

Since 1994, Box has studied Greenland's sensitivity to global warming during 16 expeditions to the polar island. His work regarding its monstrous ice sheet has lent a new certainty to a dismal prospect: a melting Greenland that even by the most conservative estimates ­could impact millions of people living in the world's vulnerable coastal cities.

And he recently was named chair of the cryosphere focus group of the American Geophysical Union, one of the nation's largest and most respected scientific organizations; in December, at its annual gathering of nearly 15,000 members, Box presented his findings that the loss of floating ice pouring from Greenland's glaciers in 2008 alone would cover an area twice the size of Manhattan.

On this day, though, he has just wrapped up a lecture to a class of undergraduates at Derby Hall at Ohio State and heads to his office. A high-ceiling room, it's exceptionally neat and ordered. Two rows of metal bookshelves line one side, a combination of modern scholarly works and the worn copies of the classic diaries and memoirs of his field's earliest explorers.

Box sits in front of his 37-inch computer monitor, which displays a stunning image of a pristine glacier jutting out of blue water. Bellying up to an L-shaped desk, with a wireless mouse in hand, he suddenly looks out of place. A polar explorer with a desk job?

It's easy to picture Box on the back cover of one of those frayed books with his neatly trimmed auburn-colored beard and mustache, his tousled hair and muscular frame, the sturdy hiking boots, the strong chin and steady, calm demeanor. Think Indiana Jones, but swap out the fedora for a wool skullcap.

Box is part of a growing interdisciplinary field of geographers, climatologists and glaciologists dedicated to bringing certainty and the discipline of rigorous science to answering what's arguably one of mankind's most pressing questions: Just how fast will Greenland's ice sheet melt? Among glaciologists, the generally accepted projection is a three-foot rise in global sea level by the end of the century. But others have predicted three feet from Greenland alone during that time.

In other words, the debate is no longer about if. It's all about proportion: How fast? How much?

Every 98.8 minutes, a satellite 438 miles high orbits the Earth, collecting data on the polar regions, including those thousands of melt lakes on Greenland. The data get dumped to ground stations in Alaska and Norway. It's a 24-hour-a-day system, as the findings make their way from ground stations to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This voluminous information eventually makes its way to the desk of NASA climatologist Claire Parkinson, who followed the polar-opposite path of Box. Like most climatologists, she's made a few expeditions to polar regions. But in a career spanning 31 years (she earned her Ph.D. in climatology at Ohio State), she's spent the bulk of her time working with the satellite data, focusing on sea ice and the slightest of changes-collaborating with other scientists to create models to parse out how the melting in polar regions might impact global climate systems.

"The work Jason does is incredibly important," Parkinson says. "The satellite data alone would have too many uncertainties unless people were on the ground getting real solid information about what is going on. We just don't know until we get what we call 'ground truth,' people on the ground making measurements."

Steffen recalls the day he first noticed Box, a young, ambitious undergraduate, visiting his office. "He just stood in front of me. Jason's tall, but I'm taller than he is, and he just stood there and said, 'I want to come to Greenland.' He was very convincing about why I should take him around."

Not only did he take him, he also served as his mentor as Box completed his master's, Ph.D. and postdoctoral research at the university. Box frequently headed to Greenland for research-even camping out in the brutal conditions at Steffen's Swiss Camp, which in recent years has become the requisite trek of environmental journalists and politicians alike, including a 2007 congressional delegation that included U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It was in 1996 on an expedition with Steffen that Box met Ohio State's Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a geography professor and research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center specializing in ice cores. "I was so very impressed with how enthusiastic he was about the work he was doing and how engaged he was in the polar environment," says Mosley-Thompson, adding that many graduate students reject polar research after a few days in the harsh surroundings. She began to recruit Box to OSU, where eventually he earned a coveted postdoctoral Byrd fellowship.

Much of the critiques and skepticism that persists about global warming relates to the level of uncertainty endemic to existing climate models. Box's contributions-setting up weather systems on Greenland, working with instruments and spending months in the field-are chipping away at those uncertainties, according to Steffen. "That makes Jason very unique," he says. "I don't know of any modeler that has a background in observation and measurement. . . . That is his strength now-he has the insight about what can be measured, what is feasible, what is the accuracy and the uncertainty. Therefore, he can make a very valuable contribution."

Asked about Box's­ future in the field, Steffen adds, "I look at Jason as becoming the climate modeler for the Greenland ice sheet."

It's a cold day in late October and Box is giving a lecture on clouds and ocean circulation to about 20 undergraduates at Derby Hall. He speaks in a slow and measured cadence, flipping through slides, each a stunning image of cloud formations created via nature's chaotic weather system. Cumulus humilis. Cumulonimbus. Stratus. Stratocumulus. Cirrus. Nimbostratus. Mammatus. The photographs are stunning, the variability seemingly limitless.

Box delivers the lesson without flourish, in a tone reflective of his casual style. He wears a pair of gray denim pants and a funky orange and yellow pattern shirt. There's a watch on the table in front of him, an open reusable water bottle, a MacBook on a cart. He reminds students of an upcoming quiz before moving to the topic of ocean circulation currents.

Then he mentions the thermohaline circulation current, which, thanks to Hollywood, the students nod about knowingly. Box describes it as the global conveyor belt and notes that the melting of land ice influences this circulation. It's shockingly slow, at least from a human perception of time: just 1,200 centimeters per second, resurfacing in the northeast Pacific Ocean 1,200 years later.

After spending six weeks of the quarter lecturing on the basics, Box brings up climate change for the first time, using a slide with a movie poster from The Day After Tomorrow. He relates the movie's "overdramatization" of a provocative paper published in 1997 by Wallace Broecker. Recent studies instead now point to only regional cooling, not a worldwide Ice Age as the Hollywood version suggested.

In describing the original paper, he quickly draws two circles with a black dry-erase marker: a chaotic swirl on the left and a chaotic swirl on the right, linking the two scenarios-non-Ice Age v. Ice Age-with curved lines.

He turns to the class: "If you perturb the system enough it can jump it," thrusting the global climate system back into an Ice Age.

"Scientists have stepped back from that," he says, putting the cap back on the marker. "We do not fully understand the global climate system yet."

It's a surprisingly humble disclosure, the kind climate skeptics often seize on to try to disprove an indisputable long-term trend: Mean global temperatures are rising.

After class, Box heads to his office, where he's asked about NASA's James Hansen. Well-known among environmentalists and scientists, Hansen is one of the world's most respected climatologists and arguably one of its most controversial-so much so the Bush administration tried (and failed) to force Hansen to clear all public statements and speeches through a PR staff. Like others, Box calls Hansen the "Paul Revere of climate change."

Scientists tend not to employ doomsday language when presenting research findings. A measured, passionless voice trumps that of the provocateur. A stereotype, perhaps, but scientists by nature or training tend to lack the sky-is-falling disposition of fanatics and the proclivities of the extremist.

Yet, over the last year, the rhetoric around climate change has reached a new level of intensity. Al Gore recently called for "civil disobedience" against the opening of new coal-burning power plants. And even Hansen has likened the cordons of coal cars en route to power plants to "death trains of the Holocaust." He chastised scientists in a 2007 paper, "Scientific reticence and sea level rise," for staying "within a comfort zone."

But Box doesn't get to talk like Hansen, who is at the pinnacle of a long, distinguished career. It's also not his style. "I've been trying to talk more soberly because I think at this point the scientists have convinced politicians, who have embraced the issue of climate change. My fear is the scientists will have some explaining to do when the climate cools for a few years," he says, before heating up again.

Does Box see himself as one of those reticent scientists operating within a comfort zone? "The ego has to distance itself from this stuff," he says. "You can still tell the story and do it more factually because the facts themselves are enough. It doesn't need to be dramatized."

Box, though, is media savvy. He runs a blog about his research and posts videos regularly, and his photography of the Greenland glaciers and landscape are themselves stunning works of art. In talking about the potential of leapfrogging the sometimes staid, slow communications paths scientific research must travel before reaching the general public, Box gets visibly excited. He wants to bridge this gap-get beyond the insular tendency of his field and contribute more than just research papers impenetrable to anyone other than fellow researchers.

This months-long "green" trip will bypass the carbon-spewing charter helicopters that usually dump researchers on the inland ice. And it harkens to an earlier and more adventurous day when his field's founders-the ones staring down from his office bookshelves from a dog-eared collection of memoirs-disappeared into the arctic wilderness for years sometimes.

Yes, there will be data to gather and research to be done, but Box also sees the trip as his first serious venture into what he describes as his vision for "adventure science." He'll document the trip with video, photos and blog entries, and there's even talk of putting together a documentary. Box sees it as a way to attack the persistent skepticism about global warming, a way to open a window to his world, one where the complexity and uncertainty of climate models is being attacked daily with rigorous and demanding data-gathering.

It's the missing link-showing how the "big science" really gets done.