The Big Melt

Austin Post/National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder
The McCall Glacier in the Brooks Range of Alaska, photographed in 1958

Since 1980, computer models have been predicting that a rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will cause the Arctic to warm twice as fast as areas at lower latitudes, putting it at high risk from climate change. But as Mark Serreze explains in Brave New Arctic, until the 2000s many scientists working in the Arctic, including himself, were having a tough time finding conclusive evidence that humans were having an impact on the region’s climate.

Serreze is now director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), based at the University of Colorado at Boulder. NSIDC’s Arctic Ice News website gives daily updates on the state of the poles, an exceptionally important service for those interested in the increasing effects of climate change. In 1982, however, he was an aimless geography major who almost randomly took a job as a field assistant on an expedition to the Arctic to investigate how the great ice sheets formed during the Ice Age. He thought himself handsomely remunerated at $5.00 per hour, as he measured two small, isolated ice caps on Ellesmere Island, hoping to determine whether they were growing or shrinking.

The Arctic is geographically complex, with an even more complicated weather system, and conducting research there is hard, dangerous, and expensive. Yet it’s important that the work be done, because climate changes that occur there have a disproportionate effect on our planet. The Greenland ice cap, for example, contains enough water, were it to melt, to raise sea levels globally by around twenty-three feet, and the Arctic permafrost contains enough carbon, were it to be released, to increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by ninety parts per million (as of June 2018 it stands at 409.25 parts per million).

Even more worryingly, the Arctic also holds large reserves of methane, in the form of clathrates—icy, lattice-shaped chemical structures known as “the ice that burns.” Much of it is under the permafrost both on land and under the sea, where it’s held stable by temperature and water pressure. All of these factors make scientists worry about the consequences as they watch Greenland’s ice melt ever more rapidly, permafrost melt extend in places, and craters form as clathrates become unstable and explode. But will any of these changes trigger a tipping point in the near future that will make climate change unstoppable? Without the strong research on the Arctic led by people like Serreze, we would be flying blind into what could be a very dangerous future.

In 1983, as Serreze was about to embark on his research career, he was “thinking about Arctic cooling and instantaneous glacierization” (the rapid growth of glaciers), and despite the computer models, “even secretly hoping for it.” The evidence…

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