Arctic sea ice above North America, viewed over the Beaufort Sea © Getty Images

Watching the climate change

Mark C. Serreze gives his personal account of what it was like in the early days of studying the Arctic climate and how scientific opinions, including his own, have changed.

We all tend to be weather watchers, or at least weather talkers. Offering an opinion on the weather, be it yesterday’s storm or today’s heat and humidity, is always a safe conversation starter. It’s easy to see the weather change –just look out the window.

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Climate is basically the aggregate of weather – it’s what we expect, described in terms like average temperature. It obviously takes much more than a glance out the window to watch the climate change, but climate change can happen fast. Indeed, it has only taken a few decades for the Arctic to undergo a radical transformation. How did this happen? How did it begin? How did the Arctic change so fast?

To most of us, climate change seems slow and imperceptible, and it can be hard to accept that the planet is warming up when shoveling snow from the pavement.  As scientists have learned, a big part of the rapid change in the Arctic stems from feedbacks that involve snow and ice – the soul of the Arctic. Warm things up a bit, and some of that snow and ice melts, making the surface darker so that it absorbs more of the Sun’s energy, warming things up even further. That in turn invokes a slew of other changes.

Satellite data tell us that the Arctic’s floating sea ice cover is declining in all months, most pronounced in summer and early autumn. But the satellite records can’t substitute for the visual impact of standing on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, looking to the north, and seeing open ocean stretching to the horizon where sea ice used to be.

Less sea ice, means bigger waves, causing that very shoreline to erode back, in some areas by more than 10 metres per year. Charts and graphs of the type that climate scientists are fond of show air temperatures rising across the Arctic, on average at more than twice the rate as the globe as a whole. This even has a name – Arctic amplification. But knowledge that the Arctic is strongly warming can’t match the visual impacts that include collapse of landscapes from thawing permafrost, the replacement of vast areas of treeless windswept tundra by shrubs, and shrinking glaciers and ice caps.

The story behind my book, Brave New Arctic, begins in 1982, when, fresh out of college, I first visited the north, full of beans and with aspirations of becoming a climate scientist. My research focused on two little ice caps on the Hazen Plateau of northern Ellesmere Island, then part of the Northwest Territories.

Back then, the Arctic was, in many respects, still the Arctic of old that Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and other explorers of the 19th and early 20th century would have been familiar with. Technology had, of course, greatly advanced; while things like laptop computers were still in the future, we had the advantage of modern ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft, helicopters, snow machines and reliable two-way radios. Still, climate-wise, things had not changed all that much.

Even by the 1970s, there was a fairly widespread recognition in the science community that as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continued to rise, the climate would warm, most pronounced in the Arctic. However, there was still talk at the time, in part overstated by the media, that we might be entering a period of cooling. Indeed, this cooling was what inspired the ice cap study in the first place – one of things I was looking at is how the little ice caps cooled the local environment.  Being raised in the state of Maine, and having grown quite fond of the very real winters of that area, I found the idea of slipping into a new ice age rather appealing.

I ended up realising that aspiration of becoming a climate scientist and, very much as a result of experiences on those two little ice caps, devoted myself to studying the Arctic. For at least the first 10 years of my career, the Arctic was seemingly unchanging.

The plot started to thicken in the early 1990s with a puzzling hint of a warming Arctic Ocean, a slight decline in the coverage of sea ice, and warming over some parts of the Arctic landscape. Were the anticipated effects of greenhouse warming starting to kick in? Some scientists thought so but others, like me, weren’t so sure. I was definitely a skeptic.

The years passed, and the changes kept on coming. Still, confusion reigned. Scientists had differing and sometimes heated opinions of what they were seeing. Some explanations, including some of my own, turned out to be wrong. Some of the changes were consistent with what the climate models were predicting, but even as the changes grew stronger, it seemed, at least to me, that much of what was happening could be explained away by natural variations in climate – shifts in wind patterns – with no need to invoke the spectre of rising greenhouse gas levels. But scientists kept digging for clues, kept exchanging ideas, and mobilised resources to find the answers.

My personal turning point came a few years into the dawn of the new century when it became clear that while natural climate cycles are certainly strong in the Arctic, all along there was a human imprint of climate change that was growing with time. In my personal journey, accepting that climate change had arrived, and in a big way, can’t be pinned to a single event – it was a surrender to the overwhelming body of evidence that the science community had assembled.

Looking back on my career, still going strong as I write this, 35 years seems like a long time.  But in terms of how we tend to think about climate change, the transformation of the Arctic has happened in a flash. I’ve learned that you can indeed watch the climate change.

As for those two little ice caps that I first studied back in 1982 that hooked me on a career in climate science? Now they are just a couple of patches of frozen water, and those will disappear in a few years, just the latest victims of the rapidly warming Arctic.

Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North by Mark C. Serreze is available now (£19.99, Princeton University Press)
Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North by Mark C. Serreze is available now (£19.99, Princeton University Press)

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