In the 1990s, researchers in the Arctic noticed that floating summer sea ice had begun receding. This was accompanied by shifts in ocean circulation and unexpected changes in weather patterns throughout the world. The Arctic's perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, was warming, and treeless tundra was being overtaken by shrubs. What was going on? Brave New Arctic is Mark Serreze's riveting firsthand account of how scientists from around the globe came together to find answers.
In a sweeping tale of discovery spanning three decades, Serreze describes how puzzlement turned to concern and astonishment as researchers came to understand that the Arctic of old was quickly disappearing – with potentially devastating implications for the entire planet. Serreze is a world-renowned Arctic geographer and climatologist who has conducted fieldwork on ice caps, glaciers, sea ice, and tundra in the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. In this must-read book, he blends invaluable insights from his own career with those of other pioneering scientists who, together, ushered in an exciting new age of Arctic exploration. Along the way, he accessibly describes the cutting-edge science that led to the alarming conclusion that the Arctic is rapidly thawing due to climate change, that humans are to blame, and that the global consequences are immense.
A gripping scientific adventure story, Brave New Arctic shows how the Arctic's extraordinary transformation serves as a harbinger of things to come if we fail to meet the challenge posed by a warming Earth.
"[Serreze] shares the story of how he entered the field of climate science by accident; why, at first, he thought the climate might be getting colder rather than warmer, based on measurements from complicated Arctic weather systems; how, year after year, he became further convinced about the reality of global warming due to slowly accumulating data; and why he began to participate avidly in a scientific consensus combating climate-change deniers, most of whom have been politically motivated. Ultimately, what Serreze produces is a kind of detective story; the major crime is the human causation of global warming [...] An alarming, evidence-based book by a scientist who is not by nature an alarmist."
"[Brave New Arctic] 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 [...] 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."
"[Brave New Arctic] sounds a clarion call about the global consequences of a melting north [...] At times the book has the feeling of a suspenseful detective novel, with dedicate scientist protagonists trying to beat the clock against impending environmental disaster, all the while battling self-interested political and corporate actors who lust after 'resources' that can more easily be extracted from an ice-free zone and who threaten important research work with lawsuits and funding cuts. At other times, there is a melancholy tone as the author elegizes with past observations of a frozen landscape that will never be the same again."
– Foreword Reviews
"Distinguished scientist Mark Serreze provides an engaging history of how a true skeptic came to understand the human role in the changing Arctic, and how he contributed to that new knowledge."
– Richard B. Alley, author of The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future
"An insightful and entertaining read. Serreze has a gift for writing eloquently and colorfully from the trenches of scientific research."
– John E. Walsh, coauthor of Severe and Hazardous Weather
"Serreze gives an engaging insider's view of the struggle to understand the causes of the observed changes in the Arctic, describing how he and the broader research community came to recognize that these profound changes are a result of human impacts on the climate."
– Robert Max Holmes, Woods Hole Research Center
"Serreze provides a wealth of important findings and perspectives from his decades of work in the high North and polar regions."
– Robert W. Corell, Global Environment and Technology Foundation
"Brave New Arctic is well written, engaging, and informative. In detailing his personal journey, Serreze gives readers a wonderful feel for the progress of Arctic science over the past few decades."
– Claire L. Parkinson, polar researcher
You might think that with the constant presence of the subject of climate change in news stories there isn’t much left to tell. But just because a certain sense of climate-change-fatigue might have set in (which is worrying in itself), climate change has not stopped. In Brave New Arctic, geography professor Mark C. Serreze gives an eye-witness account of how the Arctic is rapidly changing, based on his more than 35 years of personal involvement. And as he shows, there certainly are stories left to tell.
This book is part of Princeton’s Science Essentials series, which aims to inform a general audience of rapid changes in a scientific field, told in a clear manner by a prominent expert in that field. Brave New Arctic is such a smooth read that, like a Greenland glacier sliding off its bedrock due to the Zwally effect (more about that in this book), I raced through it in a mere five hours.
Starting his narrative in 1982, when he first got involved in Arctic field research as a young cub scientist, Serreze talks us through his own research over the years, as well as the findings of the wider research community. Especially his early research, which involved a lot of work out in the Arctic, is spiced up with personal anecdotes of colourful characters and adventurous conditions out on the ice. It takes a certain character to brave these cold conditions.
As I already mentioned in my review of The Oceans: A Deep History, the Earth system is fiendishly complex. However, Serreze skillfully narrates the complexities of climate science in the Arctic. And there are an awful lot of variables that can interact with each other in feedback loops: sea-ice extent, ice thickness, near-surface air temperatures, permafrost thawing, melting processes of glaciers, circulation of ocean currents, thermal stratification of both atmosphere and water layers in the ocean, reflectivity of earth’s surface to sunlight (albedo)... it is a lot to take in. Much to his credit, every time I found myself thinking “I understand what he’s saying, but an illustration would be helpful”, I turned the page to find a map or drawing explaining key mechanisms or findings.
Unsurprisingly, as Serreze tells, the first few decades were spent in general confusion as scientists gathered data from many different sources and tried to make sense of it all. A further complication is that, yes, there are large natural cycles playing out over decades. The discovery of one such cycle, the Arctic Oscillation, is vividly described here. These make it difficult to say that climatic changes you observe are definitely due to human input. But as time passed and these natural cycles went into a phase of retreat, normally leading to a cooling Arctic, the Arctic kept on warming, with the early 2000s seeing new record-lows in the amount of remaining sea ice year upon year.
Somewhere during this time, palaeoclimatologists also got in on the research, and their combined efforts have provided a picture of Earth’s climate going back millennia. Obviously, since no written records go back this far in time, they rely on so-called proxies such as measurements on ice cores. Alley’s book The Two-Mile Time Machine provides a very well-written introduction to the study of ice cores.
The reason I bring up Alley here is that the dustjacket of Brave New Arctic features an endorsement by him that mentions Serreze’s conversion from a true sceptic to someone who accepted that humans are to blame for observed climatic changes. I just want to make the important distinction here between denialists (sticking your head in the sand) and sceptics (proper scientific conduct). Serreze belongs to the latter category. As he openly describes, despite theoretical expectations and model predictions saying that human influence will become apparent, it was initially hard to say for sure what was causing the observed changes in all of the above-mentioned variables. Natural fluctuation or human influence? For a while, the former was masking the latter. But by the early 2000s climatic changes were becoming so extreme, and so far outside of the historical values that palaeoclimatologists had described, that even Serreze became convinced that our impact on the Arctic was becoming clearly visible.
Another thing that has bedevilled our understanding are the patchy records. Climate scientists initially had only short-term, local datasets to work with. The other major strand of the story that Serreze weaves into this book is how the research community came together, and through an ever-shifting array of international collaborations (with ever-shifting acronyms) is now gathering datasets that are more comprehensive in both their duration and spatial coverage. This depends on continued financial support by funding agencies and therefore governments, so Serreze includes the influence of politics and how it has taken an unfortunate turn in the last decade, ranging from science being ignored to being flat-out suppressed. A lot more has been written about this in books such as Powell’s The Inquisition of Climate Science and Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Serreze is also not afraid to highlight how science remains a human endeavour and as such suffers from internal strife, competition, vanity, etc. Even so, the scientific process at large works, and it keeps on improving our understanding of what is happening.
Serreze masterfully explains how we now understand many things. New frontiers remain, and especially the threat of thawing permafrost, the release of methane from underwater deposits, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet are areas where many uncertainties remain. Remember though, it is not a matter of “if”, but “when” – or rather “how soon”. It is perhaps too much to expect Serreze to provide solutions, and Serreze rarely mentions the human dimension of this story, such as the impact on indigenous people in the Arctic. However, just the process of figuring out the complexities of climate change is enough to occupy the lifetime of a legion of scientists. Like Weart’s book The Discovery of Global Warming, Serreze provides an arresting account of the history of climate science, written by someone who saw it all unfold before his own eyes. If you thought you had heard it all, think again, and read this book.
Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.