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‘Brave New Arctic’ delivers a scientific detective story

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: December 1, 2018
  • Published December 1, 2018

Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North; Mark C. Serreze, Princeton University Press, 264 pages, 2018, $24.95

It’s no secret that the Arctic is melting. Sea ice extents, while variable on a yearly basis, have been in steep retreat since the turn of the century. Glaciers are receding at escalating rates. Ice caps are shrinking. Permafrost is thawing. Tundra is giving way to shrubbery. Winters are significantly shorter and warmer than at any time in the human historic record. The fabled Northwest Passage, which famously repelled every British effort at navigating it during the nineteenth century, has more recently been easily plied by cruise ships.

Why this is happening is also no secret. Carbon emissions from human activity are the driving force. It’s been known since the late nineteenth century that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that increasing levels of it in the atmosphere will result in a warmer planet. 7.2 billion human beings engaged in the industrial economy emit roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 per year. It defies the laws of atmospheric science that this can occur without consequences, and nowhere on earth are these consequences more apparent than in the Arctic.

How scientists determined that the rapid changes overtaking the Arctic are human caused is a story in itself. Contrary to the beliefs of those who deny climate realities, it’s not a conclusion that the scientific community jumped to. It became consensus only after extensive research and examination of other factors that, while playing a partial role in the overall warming, are insufficient to cause what’s being witnessed.

In his recent book, “Brave New Arctic,” Mark C. Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, proves himself a good guide for understanding how scientists reached their present understanding of what is transpiring. Having conducted research on Arctic ice since the early eighties, he’s been deeply involved in studying Arctic changes since the time when scientists first seriously turned their attention northward with the objective of understanding climate change. And perhaps most importantly, he was one of many who were slow to accept that human activities were the primary cause. He never doubted that in the long run carbon emissions would start to take a toll on the planet, but he only slowly concluded that they were already having an enormous impact, and only when the evidence overwhelmed any argument he could muster to the contrary.

'Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North' (Courtesy Princeton University Press)

What Serreze offers is a scientific detective story that shows how researchers found their way to the inevitable conclusion that the Arctic humanity has known for many centuries is gone forever, and that a new Arctic is taking its place. It’s a complicated tale that cites dozens of studies conducted over the past three decades, and trying to summarize the science here would be impossible. Tracing its trajectory, however, is easier.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Serreze explains, the idea that human activity would lead to a warmer planet went from being a topic discussed over drinks to a major field of research. And as scientists increased their knowledge of the climate, it came be recognized that owing to a convergence of reasons, the Arctic would see steeper temperature climbs (a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification), and that this would, among other things, someday lead to the loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean during summer months.

Serreze walks readers through the 1990s. At this time sea ice seemed healthy, and perhaps even growing, from initial observations. So panic had not set in. A few findings did warrant further study, however, including data gathered from submarine trips that showed the ice itself, while still extending broadly over the ocean, was thinning from the underside, even as surface temperatures were climbing.

Many — if not most — scientists at the time, including Serreze, were convinced that this was largely due to natural causes. Oscillations in both air and sea currents follow multi-year patterns, and in the nineties they were in a trend that led to warming. It was assumed that soon after the millennium, when the currents reversed, the Arctic would enter a natural cooling phase, and the then minimal sea ice loss would reverse as well.

This did not happen. In the first decade of the new century, the natural components shifted, but instead of getting colder, the warming that had been fairly gradual in the nineties suddenly spiked upward. All things being equal, this violated expectations. But the one thing that wasn’t equal was the impact of carbon in the atmosphere. Citing numerous studies, Serreze shows how all other possible explanations were ruled out. After holding out longer than many of his colleagues, in 2003 Serreze joined the growing majority. Too much was happening that shouldn’t have, he writes.

“Changes had been observed in the ocean. Changes had been observed in air temperatures and in patterns of atmospheric circulation. Now it seemed the hydrologic cycle was getting into the act.”

In the fifteen years since it’s only grown more apparent. Sea ice minimum records were not simply getting beaten, in some cases they were smashed (although 2012 for now remains the lowest). Greenland’s ice sheet started discharging enormous volumes of water, with serious implications for global sea levels. Altered jet streams over the Arctic led to a massive increase in extreme weather events over the Northern Hemisphere. What’s happening in the Arctic isn’t staying in the Arctic.

This book contains a lot of science and requires attentive reading. Serreze details the debates that led to the consensus and shows how atmospheric, oceanographic, and other factors interact (understanding how CO2 warms the planet is easy, but grasping the domino affects from this is not). He also gets into politics both within the scientific community as well as beyond, where resistance to reality has been relentless. And he cites the work of quite a few University of Alaska researchers, lending the book local resonance.

But the larger resonance is global. We are living in the Anthropocene, and as Serreze shows with this brief bet detailed book, today’s Arctic is proof.

David A. James is a Fairbanks based critic and freelance writer.

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