Book review – Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North

You might think that with the constant presence of the subject of climate change in news stories there isn’t much left to tell. But just because a certain sense of climate-change-fatigue might have set in (which is worrying in itself), climate change has not stopped. In Brave New Arctic, geography professor Mark C. Serreze gives an eye-witness account of how the Arctic is rapidly changing, based on his more than 35 years of personal involvement. And as he shows, there certainly are stories left to tell.

Brave New Arctic

Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North“, written by Mark C. Serrezek, published by Princeton University Press in May 2018 (hardback, 248 pages)

This book is part of Princeton’s Science Essentials series, which aims to inform a general audience of rapid changes in a scientific field, told in a clear manner by a prominent expert in that field. Brave New Arctic is such a smooth read that, like a Greenland glacier sliding off its bedrock due to the Zwally effect (more about that in this book), I raced through it in a mere five hours.

Starting his narrative in 1982, when he first got involved in Arctic field research as a young cub scientist, Serreze talks us through his own research over the years, as well as the findings of the wider research community. Especially his early research, which involved a lot of work out in the Arctic, is spiced up with personal anecdotes of colourful characters and adventurous conditions out on the ice. It takes a certain character to brave these cold conditions.

As I already mentioned in my review of The Oceans: A Deep History, the Earth system is fiendishly complex. However, Serreze skillfully narrates the complexities of climate science in the Arctic. And there are an awful lot of variables that can interact with each other in feedback loops: sea-ice extent, ice thickness, near-surface air temperatures, permafrost thawing, melting processes of glaciers, circulation of ocean currents, thermal stratification of both atmosphere and water layers in the ocean, reflectivity of earth’s surface to sunlight (albedo)… it is a lot to take in. Much to his credit, every time I found myself thinking “I understand what he’s saying, but an illustration would be helpful”, I turned the page to find a map or drawing explaining key mechanisms or findings.

“Brave New Arctic is such a smooth read that, like a Greenland glacier sliding off its bedrock […] I raced through it in a mere five hours.”

Unsurprisingly, as Serreze tells, the first few decades were spent in general confusion as scientists gathered data from many different sources and tried to make sense of it all. A further complication is that, yes, there are large natural cycles playing out over decades. The discovery of one such cycle, the Arctic Oscillation, is vividly described here. These make it difficult to say that climatic changes you observe are definitely due to human input. But as time passed and these natural cycles went into a phase of retreat, normally leading to a cooling Arctic, the Arctic kept on warming, with the early 2000s seeing new record-lows in the amount of remaining sea ice year upon year.

Somewhere during this time, palaeoclimatologists also got in on the research, and their combined efforts have provided a picture of Earth’s climate going back millennia. Obviously, since no written records go back this far in time, they rely on so-called proxies such as measurements on ice cores. Alley’s book The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change and Our Future provides a very well-written introduction to the study of ice cores.

The reason I bring up Alley here is that the dustjacket of Brave New Arctic features an endorsement by him that mentions Serreze’s conversion from a true sceptic to someone who accepted that humans are to blame for observed climatic changes. I just want to make the important distinction here between denialists (sticking your head in the sand) and sceptics (proper scientific conduct). Serreze belongs to the latter category. As he openly describes, despite theoretical expectations and model predictions saying that human influence will become apparent, it was initially hard to say for sure what was causing the observed changes in all of the above-mentioned variables. Natural fluctuation or human influence? For a while, the former was masking the latter. But by the early 2000s climatic changes were becoming so extreme, and so far outside of the historical values that palaeoclimatologists had described, that even Serreze became convinced that our impact on the Arctic was becoming clearly visible.

“I just want to make the important distinction here between denialists […] and sceptics […]. Serreze belongs to the latter category.”

Another thing that has bedevilled our understanding are the patchy records. Climate scientists initially had only short-term, local datasets to work with. The other major strand of the story that Serreze weaves into this book is how the research community came together, and through an ever-shifting array of international collaborations (with ever-shifting acronyms) is now gathering datasets that are more comprehensive in both their duration and spatial coverage. This depends on continued financial support by funding agencies and therefore governments, so Serreze includes the influence of politics and how it has taken an unfortunate turn in the last decade, ranging from science being ignored to being flat-out suppressed. A lot more has been written about this in books such as Powell’s The Inquisition of Climate Science and Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Serreze is also not afraid to highlight how science remains a human endeavour and as such suffers from internal strife, competition, vanity, etc. Even so, the scientific process at large works, and it keeps on improving our understanding of what is happening.

Serreze masterfully explains how we now understand many things. New frontiers remain, and especially the threat of thawing permafrost, the release of methane from underwater deposits, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet are areas where many uncertainties remain. Remember though, it is not a matter of “if”, but “when” – or rather “how soon”. It is perhaps too much to expect Serreze to provide solutions (writes this reviewer, as he mutters “addressing overpopulation, anyone?” under his breath), and Serreze rarely mentions the human dimension of this story, such as the impact on indigenous people in the Arctic. However, just the process of figuring out the complexities of climate change is enough to occupy the lifetime of a legion of scientists. Like Weart’s book The Discovery of Global Warming, Serreze provides an arresting account of the history of climate science, written by someone who saw it all unfold before his own eyes. If you thought you had heard it all, think again, and read this book.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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