Ice and humanity have always been close partners, says Mark Serreze, director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. But this relationship is changing fast as polar ice melts. Here he selects five books that fed his fascination.
The Arctic region is mostly ocean, almost completely surrounded by land. That ocean, more than two miles deep in places, is covered by floating sea ice. This sea ice cover waxes and wanes with the seasons, peaking in winter and shrinking to its minimum size in September, marking the end of the summer melt season. But that ice cover is shrinking.
Back in the early 1980s, the sea ice in September typically covered an area somewhat less than the size of the contiguous United States. Now it is much, much smaller – we have lost an area equivalent to all of the states east of the Mississippi, plus the Dakotas and Nebraska. That’s a lot of real estate. Over the past couple of decades, Arctic temperatures have increased at twice the rate of the globe as a whole. Permafrost – the Arctic’s perennially frozen ground, is also warming and thawing in many areas, causing collapse of landscapes and damaging infrastructure like roads and buildings. At the same time, areas of treeless, windswept tundra are being taken over by shrubs.
The Greenland ice sheet is melting more each summer, and discharging more icebergs into the Arctic Ocean, contributing to rising sea levels. Coastal erosion is a growing problem. Along parts of the Alaskan coast, the shoreline is retreating 30 feet a year. Less sea ice means bigger waves. The ocean waters are also warmer. These warm waters eat away at coastal bluffs made of sediments, which are glued together by permafrost. Because that permafrost is also warming, it’s a triple whammy. But there is really no surprise here. Decades ago, we knew that as our planet warmed, the effects would be most pronounced in the Arctic. That expectation has become a grim reality.
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Impacts of the changing north are reverberating throughout the Arctic food chain, all the way from plankton in the sea to top predators like walrus and polar bears. The Arctic of old is disappearing fast, and the changes show no sign of stopping.
What about the Antarctic?
Just like we expected that the Arctic would lead the way in climate change, it has been long understood that, much like a hibernating bear, the Antarctic would be slow to stir. A lot of this has to do with physical geography. Unlike the Arctic – an ocean surrounded by land – the Antarctic is an immense, cold ice sheet surrounded by ocean. Yes, the Antarctic ice sheet is losing mass, contributing to rising sea level, and the potential future effects of the Antarctic on sea level are huge, but so far the Arctic is stealing the show.
How could things look in coming decades?
If the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeps rising at its current rate, a seasonally ice free Arctic Ocean is inevitable. This means that in the future, if you were to look at the Arctic Ocean in late summer or early autumn, there will be essentially no sea ice. It will be a blue ocean. There will still be winter ice, for even in a warmer world it will get cold and dark in the Arctic in winter, but that ice will be a seasonal feature.
When will the Arctic become seasonally ice-free given the trajectory that we are on? It’s hard to pin a date on it, but mid-century is a pretty good bet, and it may be considerably earlier. Loss of the sea ice and warming of the Arctic Ocean will be attended by a host of other changes. For example, fish species previously unknown to the Arctic will move north. Weather patterns will likely change. With less sea ice, the Arctic will be a busier place, with merchant ships regularly traversing the Arctic Ocean. Coastal erosion, already a problem in places like Alaska, will only increase.
“ By 2100, global sea level is expected to be about a meter higher than today ”
By the year 2100, a lot of the near-surface permafrost that underlies Arctic land areas will have thawed. In addition to the obvious impacts on infrastructure that I’ve already mentioned, we must consider the vast amount of carbon currently locked in the permafrost, such as in frozen peatlands. When these areas thaw, the microbes in the soil become active, eat that carbon, and release carbon dioxide or methane to the atmosphere, further raising greenhouse gas levels and amplifying the warming. We don’t know how big the overall impact will be, but a lot of scientists are working on the problem. A pretty sure bet is that as the north warms, the very vegetation of the Arctic will be different – a lot of the tundra vegetation will disappear and be replaced by shrubs. This will be a problem for species like caribou, but species, like moose, will find a shrubbier Arctic to their liking.
By 2100, global sea level is expected to be about a meter higher than today, in considerable part due to continued meltdown of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. This spells trouble for places like Miami, where they are already feeling the effects of rising sea level. But as with the permafrost issue, there are big unknowns. How will the ice sheets behave through the remainder of the century? The sea level rise might be less than what current projections suggest, but it might end up being considerably larger.
In the end, a lot depends on us. Will we continue on an aggressive path of burning fossil fuels, leading to a rapid rise in greenhouse gas levels? If so, impacts will be severe. Or will we wake up and strongly curb greenhouse gas emissions by turning to friendlier energy sources?
Your book Brave New Arctic is a scrupulous account of the science. There’s also a strong current of emotion in it. What do you hope people will get from the book?
Two goals I had in mind when writing this book were to get across how scientific research is actually done and how human that process can be. As I’ve tried to show, scientific research is very much detective work. We gather evidence, run down clues, and draw conclusions. We play on hunches. Invariably, those conclusions are based on incomplete data so sometimes they are wrong. I’ve certainly made my own share of blunders. But science is a self-correcting process. In what we call the peer review system, interpretations or conclusions that one scientist or group of scientists arrive at are reviewed by other scientists, who have the job of picking apart those interpretations and conclusions. It can be a very humbling process. As more data and evidence is assembled, we refine our views, always with the aim of finding the truth.
There are some scientists out there that fit the geeky, nerdy, bespectacled and socially awkward stereotype, but most of us are just normal people who happen to have a passion for research. Many of us have hobbies; a surprising number of scientists are musicians for example (I play keyboards in a rock band). And we are all prone to human frailties such as ego, pride, vanity and prejudice. As I mentioned in my book, shouting matches at conferences between scientists with different points of view are not unknown. We can be a rather emotional lot. Most of us are very disturbed by what we see; what made climate change very personal to me was discovering that the two little ice caps that I’d studied back in the early 1980s are on the verge of disappearing. We all have our stories, but what is perhaps most disturbing to scientists, especially those of us who have seen the remarkable transformation of the Arctic, is to see so little action (at least here in the US) to do anything about climate change, and even worse, concerted efforts by some to bury the science or silence the scientists.
Tell us about your first book choice, Endurance.
I first read this book many years ago, when I was starting to become interested in the polar regions. It’s the story about how Ernest Shackleton led his men to safety after his ship, the Endurance, was beset and then crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica. The ship had set sail for the Antarctic in 1914 on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, conceived by Shackleton as an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. By the time of the expedition, the South Pole had already been ‘conquered’ by Roald Amundsen in 1911. Crossing the continent was viewed as the last great feat in Antarctic Exploration.
It didn’t work out as planned. The ship became trapped by ice in October of that year and had to be abandoned when it started to sink. The crew saved all they could and stayed on the sea ice until it started to break up, at which time they used the ship’s lifeboats to reach Elephant Island, just beyond the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. There, most of the crew found shelter and food and hunkered down while Shackleton and five others took the largest of the lifeboats, modified as they could for the open seas, and managed to navigate to South Georgia Island where there was a whaling station. Upon landing at South Georgia, he and two of his men crossed the Island on foot to reach the station. It took Shackleton three months and three tries before he successfully approached Elephant Island in a borrowed vessel to rescue the rest of his men.
“ Whenever I think I have it rough I think back to Shackleton’s voyage. It helps to put things into perspective”
I’ve read the book several times now, and every time I do, the stories of what Shackleton and his crew went through sends shivers down my spine. Again and again they escaped what seemed like certain death, and in the end they all survived. Especially bone chilling is the part about how Shackleton and his chosen crew of five managed to navigate to South Georgia Island – seemingly a tiny speck of land in the frigid, wave-tossed Southern Ocean – in a modified lifeboat. How they didn’t all die, of hypothermia, being tossed into the sea, or dashed upon the rocks as they tried to make landing, seems beyond comprehension. Much of the polar exploration of the past was driven by nationalism, greed and plain old ego and glory, and the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was no different in this respect, but these guys were the real deal. Whenever I think I have it rough I think back to Shackleton’s voyage. It helps to put things into perspective.
Your second choice, Alone by Richard Byrd, is also a tale of survival, but it is focuses on an individual rather than a team leader.
Imagine being all alone for six months, your only contact with the outside world a two way radio, going stir crazy not just because of the aloneness, but because you are slowly being poisoned by the very air that you are breathing. This Richard E Byrd’s story of survival during his second Antarctic expedition of 1934. Like Alfred Lansing’s story about Shackleton’s ordeal to save his men after his ship was crushed by ice, I first read Alone as an adventure-minded college undergraduate who was starting to become interested in polar science. It has stuck with me ever since.
By 1934, Byrd, a graduate of the US Naval academy, was already a national hero for his previous exploits. As part of the second expedition, Byrd planned to spend six months alone in Antarctica collecting weather data. It all went wrong about two months in when he started suffering from physical and mental illness, and became engaged in a monumental struggle simply to survive. The root cause was eventually discovered – carbon monoxide poisoning from his faulty stove. He maintained contact via Morse Code with base camp, called Little America. When transmissions became sporadic and odd, the decision was made to try and rescue him. The first two attempts failed, but the third got through. The rescue party found Byrd frail and week, 60 pounds lighter, but alive. They stayed with him for two months, nursed him back to health, and, when the sun returned in October, brought in one of the expedition’s airplanes out to fly him back to Little America.
“Solitude can cleanse the mind, but if you are not careful it can easily overwhelm you”
It was not until the spring and summer of 1982, when spending two months on a little ice cap on northern Ellesmere Island, that I started to get a little appreciation of what Byrd went through. I had a field assistant, so I wasn’t alone. I was not poisoned by carbon monoxide, and we had voice contact by radio with the home base. But after that summer, I’d learned a lot about solitude, both how it can cleanse the mind, but also how, if you are not careful, it can easily overwhelm you. The story of how Byrd made it through the long Antarctic night, all alone, slowly being poisoned, with no team to rely on or to provide companionship, is at the same time both inspiring and chilling.
Your third choice is North of Latitude Eighty.
I was given this slim book shortly before I was about to head out for my first field season to northern Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. I was excited to go, but still didn’t know much about where I was headed, and this book was just what I needed. It’s basically a history of the activities of the Canadian Defense Research Board on Northern Ellesmere and the surrounding coasts – all north of 80 degrees. The CDRB had been tasked with providing knowledge about the Canadian Arctic – its climate, weather, biology, oceanography and geology. The writing is pretty dry in places and some of it seems more like a technical report. But that didn’t matter to me, because it was only after reading the book that I started to understand how field science in the north is actually done. Here were the exploits of some of the giants in Arctic science in the 1950s and 1960s, flying around in DC-3 and Twin Otter airplanes, traveling over land in early-generation snow machines, living in tents and Parcolls and wearing dark sunglasses, all with the goal of collecting scientific data. It sounded so cool and the idea that I was headed up to this fascinating part of the world to conduct some of the same sort of work and perhaps actually meet some of those scientist was inspiring. Of course when I got there I played the part to the hilt, right up to the heavy woollen sweater, scraggly beard and, of course, dark sunglasses.
Your fourth choice is Richard Alley’s The Two Mile Time Machine. What is significant about this book?
How do we know what we know about climate change? Richard Alley’s book lays it all out in a very readable an engaging way, from how we can use ice cores – the ‘two mile time machine’ of the title – along with other data sources, not just to document how our climate changed in the past, but why it changed, why it is changing now, and what the future holds.
As Alley relates, from isotopic analysis of oxygen in the water molecules that that make up ice cores, along with data from ocean sediment cores and other information, we know that the Earth has experienced a series of ice ages and warm periods (called interglacials). We know that a trigger for going from one to the other is periodic changes in earth orbital geometry called Milankovitch forcings that affect how much solar energy is absorbed by the earth at different latitudes and different time of the year. From analysis of air bubbles trapped in the ice cores, we know that when the climate cooled, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere dropped, furthering the cooling. When the Milankovitch effects triggered a warming, carbon than had been stored in the ocean during the cooling phase was released back to the atmosphere, furthering the warming. Ice cores tell also that within these longer-term changes, there were rapid swings in climate linked to adjustments in ocean circulation. In other words, climate and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are in lockstep with each other, and big changes in climate can also occur very quickly.
“Climate and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are in lockstep with each other”
A common argument by those who question, or even deny, that humans are changing our climate, falls along the lines of “climate has changed in the past and is always changing through natural processes”. True enough, but what the argument fails to acknowledge is that the physical basis of climate change over the past 150 years is different than anything in the past. Milankovitch forcing is not the answer. Instead, we are taking carbon out of long-term geologic storage, burning it, capturing some of the energy that is released, and then dumping a major combustion product – carbon dioxide – into the atmosphere. The big red flag is that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere today is off the charts compared to anything recorded in the ice cores.
In climate science, it has been said that a key to understanding the present, and where we are headed, is to understand the past. Nowhere have I seen this articulated in a more compelling way than in The Two Mile Time Machine.
Tell us about your final choice, A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack. Is the vision of its title a real possibility?
Henry Pollack’s book is about the relationship between people and ice, Arctic and Antarctic exploration, and the development of climate science. It is also a chilling story about the consequences of losing this ice.
Ice and humanity have always been close partners. Human cultures such as the Inuit have adapted to and rely on ice. In many parts of the world, seasonal melt of mountain snows is the major source of water for drinking, agriculture and industry. So much attests to the power of ice: fjords that provide safe harbour for ships, the very existence of Long Island and its prime real estate, and the rocky soils of New England that challenge farmers. Variations in land ice – ice sheets and glaciers – have led to dramatic changes in sea level in the past. It was the lower sea level during the last ice age that enabled the migration of people from Asia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge. Native Americans and members of the First Nations have ancestors who got to North America because of ice.
Is it realistic to think that our planet’s ice will disappear? Of course, we have already lost some of it, and effects are already being experienced. Ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking and the resulting rise in sea level is starting to inundate low-lying parts of the planet. Across the American West, the winter snowpack – key to maintaining agriculture – is slowly shrinking. Permafrost, the perennially frozen ground that underlies Arctic lands, is warming and thawing, damaging infrastructure and transforming the landscape. The Arctic’s floating sea ice cover is shrinking in all seasons, most dramatically in summer, with effects on ecosystems spanning the entire food chain.
“We are certain to lose more ice, and the effects on society may well be severe”
We are certain to lose more ice, and the effects on society may well be severe. But for a long time there will still be lots of ice on our planet. Even if the rate of warming seen in the last few decades continues unabated, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will stick around for a long time. If they ever completely melted, sea level would be more than 200 feet, or 61 metres, higher than today. Ice in other forms will be quicker to respond to continued warming. Even in a warmer world, it will get cold and dark in the Arctic winter and sea ice will form – likely for centuries. But that winter ice will melt away during summer. Sea ice will be but a seasonal feature of the Arctic Ocean. For a long time, it will still snow, and with more moisture in the air, when it does snow, it may snow even harder than it used to, but as the climate warms, snowstorms will become less common.
Maybe someday, there will indeed be a world without ice, but what we are really looking at over the coming century is a world with less ice, and we are already headed well down that path. It is in our power to turn it around and regain our long-standing partnership with ice. The question is whether we have the will to do it.
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