Tag Archives: Arctic

The ice edge is a high-risk environment for Arctic industries

By Siri Veland and Amanda Lynch, Brown University

Veland (copyright) Barrow sea ice

Near shore sea ice from Barrow, Alaska June, 2014. (C) Siri Veland

Expectations of receding, thawing and melting of the Arctic have prematurely driven investments and geopolitical negotiation over Arctic marine territories and resources. The elusive mathematics of ice dynamics hamper robust forecasting and modeling, and the incongruent scales at which it is defined pose challenges for planning and coordination. Together, these form a high-risk context for Arctic industries and nations that seek to follow the ice edge northward.

Mapping sea ice
Sea ice behaves unlike other major earth surface processes. Neither purely fluid nor solid, ice does not conform to classical Newtonian physics. Fluids like water and air respond to stress continuously and evenly down to the molecular level. Solids respond to stress by deforming elastically or plastically, or by shattering. Sea ice shares characteristics with each. To represent ice in mathematical models, therefore, physicists have developed ‘parametrisations’ by combining different Newtonian behaviors. These include a ‘cavitating’ fluid and a ’viscous–plastic’ or ’viscous–plastic– elastic’ solid. These Newtonian approximations, called ‘rheologies’, seek a compromise between computational efficiency and realistic stress responses. Dynamical rheologies are incorporated in models that also include the thermodynamical response of ice to sunlight and heat. The model developer judges the level of detail to include – the impacts of brine pockets, algal growth, soot, and ice nucleation, for example. Finally, the ice model is connected to models of ocean and atmosphere. Balance is sought between accuracy and spatial detail on the one hand, and available computing power on the other.

Using statistical models avoids these challenges by only considering sea ice area and movement, but comes with its own compromises. Here, modelers measure sea ice area and movement over a period of time using buoys, ship and aircraft observations, and satellite measurement, and predict future sea ice behavior based on its past behavior. Forecasts over two to three weeks based on this approach are usually acceptable; the challenge, though, is that predictions are only as reliable as the available data. Furthermore, this approach cannot anticipate sea ice distributions that have not previously been observed, such as a lower global sea ice extent. This is an important issue given the influence of climate change. As a result, the seasonal and decadal projections that industry needs for planning investments in Arctic activities have high uncertainty.

Governing sea ice
Arctic nations have developed different frameworks for governing seasonally ice-covered waters, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas is in the process of clarifying its framework to assist nations in staking claims to Arctic territory. In United States policy, Arctic industrial activities fall under Federal, State or Borough jurisdictions, depending where the ice edge lies any given time. Drilling and shipping in the United States Arctic therefore follows the freeze and thaw of the ice edge over its c. 1500km range.

In Norway, a political push to protect the ecosystems in the marginal ice zone led to the ice edge becoming a fixed line to regulate industry. As result, the ’15 percent’ ice edge definition of ice modelers has come to define the safe limit for oil and gas exploration. Until 2014, statistical models were based on observational data from 1967 to 1985, but in 2014 the more recently recorded dataset of the National Sea and Ice Data Center in the United States for 1985-2014 was adopted. Because of the polar amplification of climate change, this defined ice edge was further north than earlier decades, opening further oil fields for exploration, and opening pointed debates about the use of science for political interests.

Yet in the hustle of activity to define an unrealisable fixed boundary, the sea ice itself intervenes, along with global oil markets and geopolitical uncertainties, to create a high-risk environment for investments. The Kullug accident in the Chukchi Sea points to overconfidence, Barents Sea drilling has so far disappointed, and Shell has pulled out of the Arctic.

Ice edge narratives
Discourse on the ’melting’, ’receding’, and ’thawing’ Arctic has dominated climate change narratives over the past decades. ’Vulnerable’ Arctic Indigenous nations feature as poster children of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fund adaptation measures. With recent record-low sea ice extents, these perceptions have led to an assumption that the Arctic will soon be open enough to host petroleum installations and to compete with the Suez and Panama Canals as a sea route. National governance of Arctic sea ice sits at the intersection of highly dynamic and insufficiently understood earth system processes, old and new cultural values, and numerous valuable industrial activities. In this complexity, a cognitive simplification of processes may have overestimated the potential of this region as a new industrial powerhouse.

Our paper in Area approaches these insights by proposing narrative as a framework for analyzing multiple and complex representations of earth processes. The paper highlights the many discourses and scales across which the ice edge is defined and governed, and the challenge of reaching convergence in policy. We urge that industries and governments that would invest in petroleum, shipping, or other activities near the seasonal ice edge avoid relying on simplified narratives of receding Arctic ice. Risk is lowered if openings exist for deliberative processes that incorporate a variety of story-lines about what the Arctic is, and what activities are permissible.

About the authors: Siri Veland is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES). Amanda Lynch is Director of IBES and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences.   

books_icon Bravo, M. “Epilogue: The Humanism of Sea Ice “. Chap. 445–52 In Siku: Knowing Our Ice edited by I Krupnik, C Aporta, S Gearheard, G Laidler and L Kielsen Holm. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2010.

books_icon Cameron, Emilie S. “Securing Indigenous Politics: A Critique of the Vulnerability and Adaptation Approach to the Human Dimensions of Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic.” Global Environmental Change 22, no. 1 (2012): 103-14.

60-world2 Jordans F 2017 Battle for Arctic resources heats up as ice recedes Global News https://globalnews.ca/news/3690400/arctic-resources-shipping-routes/ 

60-world2 Lamothe D 2017 As Arctic melts, Coast Guard maneuvers through ice, wind – and geopolitics. http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/politics-government/article171548797.html

books_icon Pincus R, Ali HA and Speth JG 2015 Diplomacy on ice: energy and the environment in the Arctic and Antarctic Yale University Press, New Haven CT

books_icon Steinberg, Philip, and Berit Kristoffersen. 2017. “‘The Ice Edge Is Lost… Nature Moved It’: Mapping Ice as State Practice in the Canadian and Norwegian North.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12184

60-world2 Thompson A 2017 Sea Ice hits record lows at both Poles Scientific America https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sea-ice-hits-record-lows-at-both-poles/ 

books_icon Veland S and Lynch A H 2017 Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49: 9–17. doi:10.1111/area.12270


The UK’s response to a rapidly-changing Arctic

By Richard Hodgkins, Loughborough University

Brøggerbreen: Photo credit: Richard Hodgkins

Brøggerbreen: Photo credit: Richard Hodgkins

The House of Lords has established an Arctic Committee, with a remit to “consider recent and expected changes in the Arctic and their implications for the UK and its international relations”. The Committee has already started taking evidence, and has just issued a call for written submissions. The UK has more of a natural claim to be interested in the Arctic than many probably realise: it is the northernmost country outside of the eight Arctic States, with the northern tip of the Shetland Islands being only 400km south of the Arctic Circle. The House of Lords’ interest largely stems from the rapid environmental changes evident in high northern latitudes, which are warming at least twice as quickly as the global average (Jeffries et al., 2013). In fact, as I argue in my recent commentary published in The Geographical Journal, the Arctic is almost uniquely susceptible to rapid change brought about through climate warming, mostly as a result of strong, positive feedbacks driven by the loss of snow and ice (Hodgkins, 2014). A greatly more accessible, ice-free Arctic Ocean particularly holds out the prospect of significant geopolitical change in the high North in the coming decades. Given current tensions between Russia and the west, this change may not necessarily be achieved harmoniously.

Our response to a changing Arctic should of course be informed by thorough understanding, free from assumptions, misconceptions or fallacies. It should not therefore be assumed that warming, by ameliorating the Arctic, will necessarily “improve” its environment or ecosystem. For instance, sea ice loss, warmer sea-surface temperatures and greater accumulation of freshwater are likely to stratify the ocean, preventing the free cycling of nutrients from shallow to deep and actually limiting biological productivity: “A warming Arctic… will simply be an ice-free version of the desert it already is” (Economist, 2013). Furthermore, the strong, positive feedbacks of “Arctic amplification” ensure that the actual atmospheric temperature increase in high northern latitudes will be much greater than the global average. Under a business-as-usual scenario, a mean 3.7°C global average temperature increase is likely by the 2090s. This implies a warming of 9°C over large parts the Arctic (IPCC, 2013). This rate of warming – which is not a worst-case scenario – exceeds anything previously encountered during human occupation of the Arctic. Terra incognita et mare incognitum, our response to the changing Arctic cannot be anything other than unprecedented; it’s to be hoped that it’s also wise.

About the author: Dr Richard Hodgkins is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Loughborough. 

60-world2 The Economist. 2013. Tequila Sunset.

books_icon Hodgkins, R. 2014. The 21st-century Arctic environment: accelerating change in the atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial spheres. The Geographical Journal, in press.

books_icon IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2013. Summary for Policymakers. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

books_icon Jeffries, M., Overland, J., Perovich, D. 2013 The Arctic shifts to a new normal. Physics Today 66, 35‒40.

A British Arctic Policy for the Twenty-first Century

by Benjamin Sacks

HMS Alert's 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

HMS Alert’s 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Britain retains significant interests in the Arctic Ocean, according to a recently published commentary in The Geographical Journal. To the general reader, this point may be somewhat surprising: physical geography aside, the United Kingdom’s more famous interests in the South Atlantic and Antarctica tend to make headlines. The Cold War, in particular, popularised the Arctic environment as the preserve of Russia, the United States, and Scandinavia. In 2007 and 2010 the House of Lords formally discussed Britain’s supposed lack of a coherent and tangible Arctic policy, proposing that the House of Commons, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the National Oceanographic Centre formulate at least a mission statement outlining British objectives in the region. Britain’s intimate relationship with Canada, and increasingly with Norway, have also been cited as key motivators to both expanding Arctic goals and defining the terms of Arctic activity. Various Parliamentary committees have discussed the possibility of establishing a powerful Arctic scientific research body similar in scope and size to the British Antarctic Survey.

The Arctic has long drawn British explorers, entrepreneurs, strategists, and naval planners. The British Empire brought Canada’s vast Arctic territories into the public imagination, and the Second World War catalysed a strong bilateral British-Norwegian relationship which continues to the present. In the twenty-first century, this exploration- and defence-based relationships have been complemented with an increasing range of corporate and public interests, from environmental activism and scientific inquiry to petroleum and rare earth minerals exploration.

Yet as of present, the British government has yet to publish or promote a formal Arctic policy. Duncan Depledge (Royal Holloway) suggests that this is because London remains concerned ‘about over-committing itself where the UK’s interests are often peripheral in relation to wider global concerns’ (p. 370). But as Depledge contends, Britain’s economic and strategic interests require a strong Arctic presence.

From a defence point-of-view, Britain both retains and will need to increase its Arctic interests. In a 2012 white paper authored for the United Royal Services Institute, Depledge and Klaus Dodds recalled their first-hand experiences observing a series of joint operations between Britain and Norway. Referring to it as the ‘forgotten partnership’, the authors stress Norway’s strong reliance and confidence in its North Sea neighbour to ensure the North Atlantic’s protection in the event of conflict. Physical geography also plays an important role: extreme weather training remains as important as ever for British forces.

Scientific and corporate interests are no less important. Beyond never-ending Parliamentary quibbling over white paper naming and policy terminology (pp. 370-72), London has repeatedly claimed that it wishes to become a leader in environmental protection and rehabilitation. World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and BBC Earth awareness programmes have accomplished significant strides in raising public awareness for ‘saving’ the Arctic from excessive human development. Ultimately, Depledge stresses the need for clarifying British Arctic policies across defence, scientific, environmental, and corporate spheres, as well as recognising Britain’s position as a non-Arctic state. Britain will need to work with Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, and the United States to seek common ground while respecting national interests.


Duncan Depledge 2013 What’s in a name? A UK Arctic policy framework for 2013, The Geographical Journal 179.4: 369-72.

books_icon Duncan Depledge and Klaus Dodds 2012 Testing the Northern Flank: The UK, Norway and Exercise Cold ResponseThe RUSI Journal 157.4: 72-78.

Global Airwaves Part I

Bush House, London. Longtime home of the BBC World Service. © 2012 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

This year the BBC World Service, the oldest and largest international broadcaster in the world, celebrates its eightieth birthday. Founded in 1932 as the Empire Service, it has become a vital fixture in global news and information, available on FM, mediumwave, shortwave, longwave, satellite, and the internet. In many respects, the World Service has shaped Britain’s international persona and culture. Like the rest of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), its editorial independence has  repeatedly drawn the ire of British politicians and diplomats as well as the respect of millions of peoples, many of whom were (or remain) unable to obtain impartial news from their local services. In its storied history, both the World Service and the BBC have developed into explorative spaces for geographers, scholars, and activists. The Royal Geographical Society actively documented the roles the BBC played in geographic exploration and education.

In one of the earliest BBC/RGS collaborations, the nascent broadcaster permitted portions of explorer and aviator George Binney’s commentary on Roald Amundsen’s 1925 Arctic flight to be reprinted with analysis in The Geographical Journal. The collaboration resulted in Amundsen’s feat being broadcasted across Europe and to be simultaneously disseminated by the RGS to the British imperial scholarly community. The 1925 work catalysed a series of intersections between RGS-IBG and BBC projects, reports, and activities throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In a 1955 discussion of geographical and social descriptions of domestic landscapes, A E Smailes resourced Michael Robbins’s BBC home service talks concerning the ‘anatomy of the countryside ‘(p. 100).

The BBC also filled an important role for the geographer of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s: often, it was the only relatively reliable means of communicating with explorers traversing Earth’s extremes. In 1955, Commander C J W Simpson, DSC, of the Royal Navy, recounted in detail to the RGS, HM The Queen, and The Duke of Edinburgh his 1952-1954 expedition to the northern fringes of Danish-controlled Greenland. He led some thirty scientists and specialists on a major venture involving the RGS, the Royal Society, the RAF, Royal Navy, and Army, and the Scott Polar Research Institute (p. 276). The group traversed across the vast island, from Germania Land and Britannia Sø on the eastern coast to Thule near Canada (pp. 277-79). In a harrowing 1953-1954 Arctic winter, the BBC broadcast special messages each month; a collection of well-wishes from family, friends, and admirers of the British expeditionary effort (pp. 285-86). In 1958, designated the International Geophysical Year, the RGS described the role of the BBC in transmitting national and international solar weather warnings and praised UK engineers and scientists (p. 28). The BBC’s political and scientific roles were further explored in a 1966 article recounting the experiences of Charles Swithinbank, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who spent a year living and working with Soviet specialists at Antarctic stations (p. 469). The men, despondent for news and culture from home, listened for updates from both the BBC World Service and Radio Moscow shortwave services in a rare moment of Cold War friendship.

 ‘Amundsen’s Polar Flight‘, The Geographical Journal 66.1 (Jul., 1925): 48-53.

 A E Smailes, ‘Some Reflections on the Geographical Description and Analysis of Townscapes‘, Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers) 21 (1955): 99-115.

 C J W Simpson, ‘The British North Greenland Expedition‘, The Geographical Journal 121.3 (Sep., 1955): 274-89.

 D C Martin, ‘The International Geophysical Year‘, The Geographical Journal 124.1 (Mar., 1958): 18-29.

 Charles Swithinbank, ‘A Year with the Russians in Antarctica‘, The Geographical Journal 132.4 (Dec., 1966): 463-74. Also see Dudley Stamp and Vivian Fuch’s discussion here.

Permafrost, carbon and thermokarsts: the Arctic importance

by Caitlin Douglas

The Arctic covers 5% of the total land mass of the earth and reaches across every longitude: it is important. It is estimated that 1.4 times more carbon is stored in permafrost than is currently circulating in the atmosphere, and there is 1.5 times more carbon in permafrost than is currently being stored in all the earth’s vegetation. William Bowden (2010) outlines this in a Geography Compass article, and explains the relationships between permafrost, thermokarsts and climate change.

Permafrost is soil or rock which remains below 0oC for at least 2-3 years at a time. When permafrost thaws it loses its internal structure and subsides unevenly, and the resulting formation is called thermokarst. The transition from permafrost to thermokarst has important hydrological, geomorphological, biogeochemical and ecological importance to arctic landscapes. Globally, this transition may also release the stored carbon which, due to microbial processes, may be released as carbon dioxide or methane.

In April, a special edition on climate change was published by the journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It outlined key research questions required to better understand the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change. The arctic was prominently featured, and in particular the concern over permafrost melt and potential methane release. Scientists seem to agree that research is needed to understand the transitional process from permafrost to thermokarsts and the possible implications on the global climate.

Bowden, W. 2010. Climate Change in the Arctic – Permafrost, Thermokarst, and Why They Matter to the Non-Arctic World. Geography Compass, 4(10): 1553-1566

Scientists call for climate change early-warning system. The Guardian.  April 18th 2011.

An insight into the consequences of climate change?

Arctic sea iceMethane is a potent greenhouse gas. Human activities, e.g. farming, have resulted in the release of large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. However, in locations across the world, large amounts of methane and carbon are stored in soil or the sea bed. These are released gradually as a natural process.

In a Geography Compass paper, William Bowden raises concerns over this process as Arctic ice and permafrost (frozen ground) begin to thaw in response to climate change. Bowden suggests that stored methane and carbon may be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to the volume of greenhouse gases.

Switching our attention to the Gulf of Mexico, last April’s Deepwater Horizon oil leak also caused the release of a large quantity of methane. Research discovered that methane-absorbing bacteria multiplied rapidly in response. As a result, much of the additional methane was not released into the atmosphere.

The Arctic and Gulf of Mexico may behave very differently from each other. However, research into the Deepwater Horizon oil leak offers an insight into the potential consequences of much greater environmental change.

BBC News (6th January 2011) ‘Gulf of Mexico oil leak may give Arctic climate clues’.

Bowden, William B. (2010) ‘Climate Change in the Arctic – Permafrost, Thermokarst, and Why They Matter to the Non-Arctic World’. Geography Compass 3 (10): 1553-1566

Reconstructing Past Environments

By Paulette Cully

Being a geomorphologists at heart (which is the study of landscapes and the processes which shape the earth’s surface) I enjoy reading about the methods used to reconstruct past environments and geomorphic events. A detailed understanding of how the earth surface is being continuously shaped and why it looks the way it does are essential requirements for an evaluation of geomorphic processes and related changes in space and time. This is especially important in order to predict how climate change may potentially affect the frequency and volume of earth-surface processes. However, direct observations and evidence of past occurrences are scarce and data is patchy. It was, therefore, with some excitement that I read a recent news article on this subject which reports how information gleaned from sediment cores from the bottom of Lake El’gygytgyn in north-eastern Siberia have revealed the most continuous record of ancient climate ever extracted from the terrestrial Arctic. In addition, the samples also disclosed what happened 3.6 million years ago when a large meteorite struck the site when the area was warmer and forested. In contrast, today the area is a region of tundra and the crater generated by the meteorite has since filled with water to become the lake.

For those of you keen to learn more about reconstructing past environments, it is recommended to read ‘What tree rings can tell us about earth-surface processes: Teaching the principals of dendrogeomorphology’ in ‘Geography  Compass’ (2009).  In their article, Stoffel and Bollschweiler provide a fascinating discussion of dendrochronology, or tree-ring analysis, which is one of the most precise and accurate methods for dating various geomorphic processes. This is because it allows scientists to define incidences with at least a yearly precision. As a result, dendrochronology has become the mainstay for Holocene (from 12,000 years ago to the present day) chronology reconstructions. The article provides an overview on how trees are affected by earth-surface processes, on how they are used in the analysis of geomorphic processes and on what they can reveal about the occurrence and evolution of geomorphic processes in time and space.

Click here to read the article about Lake El’gygytgyn

Click here to read Stoffel, M. and Bollschweiler, M., (2009),  What trees can tell us about earth-surface processes: Teaching the principals of dendrogeomorphology, Geography Compass, Vol. 3, Issue 3, Pages 113-1037