Tag Archives: Sea Ice

“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/

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.

The future of the Arctic?

By Richard Gravelle

The future of the Arctic in a warming climate is a hotly debated subject.  Retreating sea ice limits and melting ice masses have the potential to change the face of the region as we know it.  Unfortunately however, we may be heading towards a time when the future of the Arctic region is decided in the boardroom, and not by the Earth’s climate.

The commercial consequences of changes to the Arctic were brought to the forefront this week as an international meeting in Moscow sought to deal with the Arctic’s mineral wealth.

It is believed that one quarter of the worlds oil and gas are located beneath the Arctic Ocean, and this has led several countries to lay claim to territory in the area.  A well known example of this took place in 2007 when a Russian submarine planted a flag on the sea floor as a symbolic gesture of Moscow’s intentions.  Since then Norway, Canada, Denmark and the United States have laid claim to the region.  Russia, for example has promised the equivalent of £40 million in pursuing its claim.

The meeting will aim to end territorial disputes and promote cooperation between countries working in the Arctic.  However, with several of the interested countries having submitted, or intending to submit claims to the United Nations, the dispute does not look likely to end soon.

Arctic summit in Moscow hears rival claims – BBC News, 22nd September 2010

Russia plants flag under North Pole – BBC News, 2nd August 2007

The human consequences of climate change

Andy Hacket Pain

Over the last few years, there has been much recent media interest in the impacts of climatic warming in the Arctic region, with the Guardian recently reporting new research that demonstrates a strong feedback between sea ice loss and increasing regional temperatures, potentially leading to even more rapid loss of Arctic sea ice.

Studies such these provide important evidence on the global impacts of anthropogenic climate warming, and are often used in high profile campaigns by conservation groups to emphasise the importance of rapid national and international action to reduce carbon emissions.

However, I think we can sometimes be guilty of neglecting the local impacts of climate change. James Ford and others, writing in The Geographical Journal provide a case study examining how climate change in the Arctic impacts on indigenous Inuit populations in Canada. They show that in addition to the rate and nature of environmental change, factors such local traditions and community structure interact to produce a complex picture of vulnerability in these communities.

Despite this being a very locally-based study, work such as this highlights that simply producing good monitoring and prediction capacities is not enough when we are dealing with the impacts of climate change – we must go beyond the pure science and appreciate the complex relationships between society and nature if we are to gain a better understanding of the true human consequences of greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the article in The Guardian

Read the article by Ford et al (2007)