Darkening hues of Greenland
For British glacial microbiologist Joseph Cook, the blooming of a rainforest of microscopic life in the rapidly warming Arctic holds not only mystery and beauty – but also menace. The colours reflect both the unanticipated changes wrought by human activity on the planet and the hazards of accelerating sea level rise, drowning the world’s coastal cities.
In 2016, Cook was named a Rolex Young Laureate for his pioneering research in the field of glacial microbiology. Over the past four years, he has shed new light on the role of microorganisms in the melting of the planet’s ice sheets in the polar north and south and in high mountain glaciers. As human carbon emissions warm the planet, microbial life flourishes, staining gleaming expanses of ice with darker hues.
“Large areas of the Arctic and Antarctic are now colourful and dark – and dark things heat up in the sun, so those areas melt faster,” Cook explains. “If we can use drones, planes and satellites to see what processes are causing the darkening, then we can start to build a model that can project that darkening into the future. With that knowledge, we can start to think about how to mitigate or how to reduce that risk.”
With funds from his 2016 Award Cook has designed and built a scientific drone capable of surveying remote expanses of Greenland on which the human foot never treads, while his laboratory work has yielded fresh insights into how life prospers in one of Earth’s harshest environments.
“We now have the tools and equipment to be able to scale up over the entire planet,” he says. “We've got new explanations for how microscopically small life darkens glaciers and ice sheets on the scale of entire continents. Now, we have much better foundation for more accurate models for how things are going to change into the future and the risks posed globally.”
Current rates of melting could lift ocean levels several metres by 2100 – driving more than 300 million people from their homes in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Rotterdam, London, Rio and Calcutta. Until now, the influence of biology on the rate of melting has been largely unknown.
Cook’s research is exploring this hidden danger. What he learns from his work on the ground and across on the vast Greenland ice sheet can, with satellites and supercomputers, be scaled up to study all the ice and snow on Earth. This in turn will yield a far clearer picture of global change – and how it affects critical issues such as sea level rise, water resources, human safety and environmental health.
His project goes to the heart of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet, an initiative that supports scientists and explorers at the forefront of the quest to understand and protect the environment.
Even if you get humans on side, you don't necessarily get their leaders onside – leaders in politics and business. That remains the real challenge
He says the Rolex Award has brought him into contact with inspiring people across the spectrum of human endeavour from science to business, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. His connection with other Laureates has opened up fresh research, new ways to explore the challenge of creating a perpetual planet and how to communicate it to society.
On the future, Cook remains cautious: “Even if you get humans on side, you don't necessarily get their leaders onside – leaders in politics and business. That remains the real challenge,” he says. But two elements of his work give him hope: “One is the people that I get to work with, especially within the Rolex community,” Cook explains. “Second are big computational techniques, now accessible. Those two combined are yielding massive advances in understanding, combined with a real sense of urgency amongst a community that has the power to do something about it. That gives me hope.”