Tag Archives: ice edge

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 ice edge is lost” – but can it be mapped?

By Philip Steinberg, Professor of Political Geography, Durham University and Berit Kristoffersen, Associate Professor, Department of Social Sciences, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway


Photo courtesy of US National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2012/09/Figure4b.png

Drawing chaotic natures onto mobile seascapes

Amidst a steady stream of news stories announcing record-setting lows in sea ice extent, our recent publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers asks a question that is fundamental to efforts to understand and manage our changing planet: What is sea ice?

Sea ice is never simply frozen sea water. It exists amidst dynamic processes of freezing, melting, and brine rejection; it supports complex ecosystems of primary algal production; its edge (where sea ice extent meets open water) is never clearly defined; and because that edge is perpetually moving it can never easily be mapped. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, sea ice’s indeterminacy its appearances and disappearances are regularly enrolled to support one political project or another – oil drilling, sovereignty claims, environmental protection, etc.

The politics of sea ice

The political utility of sea ice was driven home to us by the publication of two maps within months of each other in 2015: a Norwegian map that moved the sea ice edge 70 kilometers northward and a Canadian map that moved it 200 kilometers southward. In “’The ice edge is lost….nature moved it’: mapping ice as state practice in the Canadian and Norwegian North,” we research the genealogies of these maps to explore the pitfalls that emerge when sea ice is mobilized as a planning object.

Is the ice edge lost?

The title of our article is derived from two statements made about the Barents Sea ice edge. The first is from Nikolai Knipowitsch, a pioneer in sea ice research, who sent a telegram to his colleagues in 1930, proclaiming: “The ice edge is lost. Those who find it, please deliver it to the address: Longitude 81”. Knipowitsch was celebrating that he had correctly predicted that, due to higher temperatures and changes in the Gulf Stream, there would be an almost total absence of sea ice that summer in the Barents Sea. The title’s second quotation comes from a statement made 85 years later by Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg. Defending a map that, moved the ice edge northward and thereby lent support to efforts to open new areas of the Barents Sea to oil exploration, Solberg stated, “We are not moving the ice edge. It is actually nature that is currently moving the ice edge”.

Both statements can be contested. Knipowitsch knew very well that the ice edge was not mysteriously ‘lost’; indeed his research was devoted to uncovering the processes behind variation in its retreat and appearance. Solberg fails to share Knipowitsch’s sense of irony, but her statement can nonetheless be subjected to critique that resonates with the large body of geographic research that questions simplistic understandings of a unidirectional relationship where ‘nature’ influences ‘culture’. In this case, for instance, one could note that the ‘nature’ that Solberg blames for ‘moving’ the Barents ice edge is itself a product of carbon emissions from oil and gas extraction similar to that which would be facilitated by the map’s redrawing of sea ice extent.

But perhaps most profoundly, both quotations refer to the ice edge as an object that can be measured, mapped, and enrolled in economic development, state building, and a host of other projects. Our article suggests that whether the ice edge is said to be lost (as it was by Knipowitsch) or found (as it was by Solberg), the significance in both of these quotations – and in the Canadian and Norwegian maps that followed – is that the ice is said to exist as an object.

Toward a politics of probabilities and processes

In “’The ice edge is lost…nature moved it’” we urge that the retreat of sea ice should be incorporated into political discourse and conversation, not by drawing and reading lines on a map but by interpreting sea ice within a confluence of probabilities and processes: probabilities because sea ice cover is both spatially and temporally uneven and dynamic, and processes because the value of sea ice is less as an object with single purposes (e.g. to hinder ships, to support marine mammals and their hunters) than as an essential element of polar ecosystems and global circulations. Drawing a line on a map and calling it an ice edge smooths over insecurities, scientific knowledge gaps, and ecological risks involved in conducting economic activities above or below that line. It follows that sea ice management needs to be directed less toward protecting the places where sea ice was most recently located and more toward management of a zone where, amidst probabilities of its occurrence, environmental and social processes are preserved.

This presents a challenge for lawyers, legislators, and activists, as well as cartographers. New forms of mapping and legislating are required for a politics of probability and processes. We hope that geographers are up to this task.

About the authors: Philip Steinberg is Professor of Political Geography and Director of IBRU: the Centre for Borders Research at Durham University. Berit Kristoffersen is Associate Professor, Department of Social Sciences, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway.

books_icon Hjort J (1939) N. M. Knipovich. 1862–1939 ICES J Mar Sci 14 (3): 335-336. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/14.3.335
books_icon Steinberg, P. and Kristoffersen, B. (2017), ‘The ice edge is lost … nature moved it’: mapping ice as state practice in the Canadian and Norwegian North. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12184

60-world2 Thompson A (2017) Sea Ice Hits Record Lows at Both Poles Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sea-ice-hits-record-lows-at-both-poles/