Tag Archives: ontological security

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


Climate Change: Politics and Perception in the United States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 


Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been a battle worthy of Cervantes, had he been alive in this era of anthropogenic climate change.  Simply mentioning the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ can elicit impassioned, often divisive, rejoinders from an audience.  Invariably, belief and cultural systems drive the discourse of climate change opinion and news reportage; it is a complex chicken and egg scenario.  There does, however, appear to be an esoteric climate change–political nexus that also, perhaps deplorably at times, influences public opinion.  Nowhere does this egregious unification seem more prevalent than in the United States.  How do the politics around climate change influence the narratives and public perception?

Astoundingly, when a group of researchers set out to examine seventy-four American public opinion polls between 2002 and 2010, they discovered that neither extreme weather events nor scientific stories affected public perception of climate change (Brulle et al., 2011).  News reports – but more importantly, the politicians framed in the reports – were the biggest influences (Brulle, et al., 2011).  The two strongest events driving public concern in the United States at the time were the Democratic Congressional action statements and the Republican roll-call votes (Brulle, et al., 2011).  Indeed, most studies indicate that American views of climate change are strongly influenced by partisan politics.  Worldwide, however, educational attainment is generally regarded as the single biggest predictor of climate change awareness.

Interestingly, while Americans and Canadians share a border and enjoy similar lifestyles, a 2010 cross-border poll revealed fewer Americans claim solid evidence of global warming “based on what they have read or heard” (Borick et al., 2011).  Remarkably, 58 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians answered affirmatively to the evidence of global warming (Borick et al., 2011).  A more recent opinion poll suggests that while 70 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, only 53 percent think it is caused by human activities (Marlon et al., 2016).

To delve into the cultural and worldview disparities between the United States and Canada would be an exhaustive endeavor.  Still, it remains striking that Canada, within reach of America’s massive media kingdom, consistently reports and frames anthropogenic climate change differently than the United States.  While American reports continue to debate the science behind global warming, Canadian reports tend to frame the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change  (Good, 2008).

Novelty, controversy, geographic proximity, and relevance are all important frames in scientific stories (Caravalho, 2007).  Experts employ frames to simplify technical jargon; journalists use frames to craft appealing news reports; and audiences rely on frames to envisage an issue (Nisbet, 2009).  When climate change basics are framed as scientifically tenable positions, audiences must choose to question or quarantine their comfortably held beliefs.  In documenting Arctic ice edge narratives, Veland and Lynch (2016) state that we tend to rely on narratives that provide comfort to us.  The authors add that ontological insecurity can be a major challenge in making sound environmental decisions.

Once upon a time, scientists were informers and people listened.  Today, because the average citizen does not read peer-reviewed scientific literature, many rely on media and opinion pieces to educate themselves on newsworthy science stories.  Disparagement between petulant politicians and scientists often overshadows the science.  But climate change is a science; it does not require belief.  In that sense, public opinion matters little.

Moreover, the post-modernist notion that all ideas are worthy of expression can become unfavorable in the realm of climate science.  Science is indeed stronger with scrutiny; but those scrutinizing it are often politicians, journalists, and bloggers, not scientists.  It is not difficult to weave scandalous narratives about anthropogenic climate change: one side includes ‘alarmists’ and ‘manipulators of science’ who say the earth is doomed; the other claims global warming is an ‘elaborate hoax’.  This ‘experts in conflict’ narrative is a popular practice used predominantly in the United States.  International research demonstrates this custom is not widely used outside of America (Young & Dugas, 2011).

Undoubtedly, the path to re-engineering society will require a reorganization of thought – perceptions without politics, notions detached from debates, narratives with new frames.  Veland and Lynch (2016) assert that the Anthropocene narrative warns that stories–and the networks that make them–must change.  As Cervantes said through Quixote, “he who walks much and reads much knows much and sees much.”  The path forward surely involves assembling this collective knowledge and having discussions, not debates.


Borick, C., Lachapelle, E., & Rabe, B. (2011, February 23). Climate Compared: Public Opinion on Climate Change in the United States and Canada. (The University of Michigan; The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion) Retrieved from Public Policy Forum/Sustainable Prosperity: http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article911

Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. C. (2011). Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002-2010. Climatic Change.

Carvahlo, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change. (S. Publications, Producer) Retrieved from Public Understanding of Science: http://www.pus.sagepub.com

Good, J. E. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers; A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. (C. J. Communication, Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2017/2006

Marlon, J., Howe, P., Mildenberger, M., & Leiserowitz, A. (2016). Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.climatecommunication.yale.edu

Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 51 (2).

Veland, S., & Lynch, A. (2016). Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49.1, 9–17 doi: 10.1111/area.12270

Young, N., & Dugas, E. (2011). (C. S. Association, Producer, & University of Ottawa) Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming: http://www.ebscohost.com

Minding the Gap in Cartography: from maps to mapping practices

by Fiona Ferbrache

World Map from 1664

World Map from 1664

If the biologist’s iconic tool of the trade is a microscope, then the geographer’s might well be a map.  Both tools offer an alternative perspective of the world, but unlike the microscope, which enlarges for the biologist, the map serves the geographer through reduction.  Maps and processes of mapping are the topics of enquiry in a TIBG paper by Kitchin, Gleeson and Dodge (2012) – one of the latest pieces of work on cartography by these authors.

For those unfamiliar with the scholarly literature, it is perhaps assumed that “a map is unquestionably a map” (Kitchin et al. 2012:2) – something that exists to measure and represent the world, even through its different forms.  For example, the London Tube map, celebrated this year as part of the 150-year anniversary of London Underground, is a topographical map showing connections between stations, rail lines and fare zones.  This is different to geographically scaled maps such as the Michelin Road Atlas or Ordnance Survey maps.

Different again is the set of maps (cartograms) comprising the Worldmapper collection, available online (see below).  These are based on a flat map of the world and territories are re-sized according to particular variables e.g. total population, fruit exports, disease, internet uses and migration.

Kitchin et al. challenge the idea of a map as something complete, fixed and stable – that which they refer to as being “ontologically secure”.  Instead, they rethink mappings as processual (thus the importance of using the verb ‘mapping’ rather than the noun ‘map’): practices that are never complete but unfold out of and into specific relational contexts.  Their paper is written from a more-than-representational standpoint to challenge the assumed ontology of maps and then consider what this means epistemologically for cartography.

The theory behind this article can be applied to other visual materials – photography, for example.  However, Kitchin et al. will hopefully inspire you to look again and rethink how you understand those maps blue-tacked to the wall in your teacher’s room.

60-world2  Mind the map: London Underground turns 150. BBC News

books_icon Kitchin, R., Gleeson, J. and Dodge, M. 2012. Unfolding mapping practices: a new epistemology for cartography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00540

60-world2 Worldmapper collection