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A researcher collects accounts of scientists’ first inklings that the Arctic was in trouble

Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North

Mark C. Serreze
Princeton University Press
269 pp.
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We often think of the Arctic as a cold landscape of sea ice, permafrost, glaciers, and snow. But it’s also a canary in a coal mine: It’s warming faster than the rest of Earth because of positive feedback cycles built into its interlinked climate-ice-ocean systems. This rapid change has global implications, some of which we are already seeing, including melting permafrost and declining sea ice. That the Arctic is changing in response to climate change is now common knowledge, but it wasn’t always so.

Brave New Arctic, by Arctic scientist Mark Serreze, delves into the recent history of Arctic research, following a trail of scientific breadcrumbs from the late 1970s to the present day to show how our understanding of the region’s response to climate and climate change has evolved over time.
Early suggestions that something unusual might be happening in the Arctic were dismissed due to a lack of data, resulting in the dominance of theories that attributed signs of warming to regular variability in large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns such as the Arctic Oscillation (AO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). In recent years, however, data sets were finally long enough (and shocking enough) for researchers to dismiss the AO/NAO paradigm and declare global warming a key culprit.

But Serreze doesn’t just describe what we now know about the Arctic, he talks about how we know it. From modeling studies that project future climates to field studies that measure permafrost temperature, he shows how research changes as technology advances (for example, when remote-sensing tools became available to measure the mass balance of Arctic glaciers, researchers no longer had to use time-consuming manual measurements). In doing so, he gives readers insight into the scientific process.

But for those who call climate researchers alarmist, Serreze shows how cautious they actually were in interpreting early study results. They hedged their bets by noting that seemingly alarming results might change once more comprehensive data sets became available. They stuck with the AO/NAO paradigm until it no longer made sense to do so, resisting the urge to implicate climate change in Arctic changes when the data showed only short-term variability. But they also recognized when the data began to clearly show a climate change connection: when the NAO and AO regressed from their high positive phases but Arctic sea ice continued to decline.

The Jökulsárlón lake emerged when the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier started to recede from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Although Serreze is obviously an expert on Arctic science, he sometimes struggles to translate complex scientific concepts into plain language. In attempting to describe the Arctic Ocean pycnocline, for example, he writes “[T]he warmer water at the top is … the lighter (that is, less dense) water, which maintains a stable vertical profile, thus inhibiting vertical mixing. … the decrease in temperature with depth, known as a thermocline, represents an increase in density with depth, known as a pycnocline.” And, in many cases, the scientific detail he provides isn’t required, as in chapter 7, where he describes atmospheric dynamics and geostrophic balance over the course of two pages. He should be summarizing key points here, not introducing complicated new concepts.

Despite these shortcomings, Serreze succeeds on one important front: humanizing Arctic science. He tells anecdotes about his research and the people he’s worked with. He portrays scientists whose work he discusses as regular people. Although some quoted passages are clumsy and jargon-filled (e.g., “‘Bruce Peterson [Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory], who was on the ARCSS committee, approached me and Larry Hinzman [UAF] about organizing a workshop on designing an integrated study of Arctic hydrology. … The workshop resulted in the Arctic CHAMP report [Community-wide Hydrologic Analysis and Monitoring Program]’”), they show how researchers think and how they make decisions about what to research.

Perhaps most important, Serreze is humble enough to recognize the limits of science. “[T]he scientific process is prone to human frailties, including vanity, envy, competition, greed, and narcissism,” he writes. “Anyone who claims that these things don’t exist in science is either lying or willfully ignorant.”

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance science writer and editor and cofounder of Science Borealis, Canada’s science blog aggregator.