A behind the scenes account of how the scientific community came to terms with the changing landscape of the Arctic
"But the Arctic tells no lies” — It is with these words that Mark C Serreze closes the last chapter of his book, Brave New Arctic. The words are at once mournful as well as menacing. What makes them truly ominous is that throughout the book, Serreze’s tone remains neutral and matter-of-fact, sometimes painfully so. Soon after discussing the declining population of polar bears—which he takes care to point out is due to a variety of factors—Serreze cheerfully mentions that bowhead whales are actually doing quite well as the loss in seaice has led to a bounty of food supply.
As is evident from the aforementioned example, climate change is a complex phenomenon—one whose effects are still not entirely understood even by those who have spent a lifetime studying it. It is this complexity which drives the book and comes across as its most prominent theme. Serreze is forthright in admitting that throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the scientific community was not clear on how to best distinguish human footprints of global warming from natural climate variability. This was mostly due to unreliable accounts and records which did not go far back enough to provide sufficient data for mapping climate change. The biggest challenge for scientists, therefore, has been to study a phenomenon that stretches across the entire planet in spatial terms, and has probably been underway before any well-recorded, objective study of climate patterns existed.
It was only around 1996-97 that scientists of various disciplines studying the Arctic started organising in official/unofficial groups to pool their resources and expertise. A prominent example being the “atmospheric reanalysis” efforts, which primarily entailed the collation of all available historical atmospheric information into a numerical weather model—thereby connecting small, isolated instances of climate change to a larger pattern.
It is through such descriptions that Serreze provides a chronological account of how research on the Arctic—and by extension global warming as a whole—evolved over the last two decades. He discusses important studies and major breakthroughs that have paved the way to our present understanding of the Arctic. In a way, the biggest achievement of the book lies in its ability to showcase the messiness and imperfections of scientific research. It provides a behind the scenes account of how the production of knowledge takes place with each new study building on earlier works until the cumulative weight of research reaches a critical threshold that turns a theory into a widely accepted “fact”. And therein lies the irony too, for it is hard to find any other modern scientific “fact” facing as much denial and backlash as climate change. Perhaps astutely, the author delves into the politics of climate change only briefly towards the end of the book to highlight the significance of public involvement and government support for independent academic research.
At its heart, Brave New Arctic remains a personal narrative of the author as he got over his ambivalence and doubts to take a publicised stand in 2008 about the Arctic seaice cover being in a “death spiral”. Serreze captures his desperation of getting the word out when while testifying to a US Senate Committee, he shed all nuance and doubt to declare that global warming was indeed the culprit behind the decline in seaice cover. A statement he later justified by saying, “When speaking to the hard of hearing, one should speak a little louder.” Given the lukewarm reaction to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, one wonders if Serreze was loud enough.
'We've got to get out of our comfort zones'
With respect to tackling climate change, the last few years seem to have taken us further back. How will this pan out in the future?
At least in some countries, notably the US, we do indeed seem to have taken steps backwards in recent years. Although there is a rough road ahead, I am optimistic that truth will prevail in the end. Scientists need to be much more effective and proactive in engaging with the public about the reality of climate change and its implications. Many of us are introverts and are comfortable just doing our science, but if we have to make more of an impact, we've got to get out of our comfort zones.
Do you feel the scientific community has not been aggressive enough?
While we need to be more aggressive—and we certainly have missed some opportunities—we need to be seen as honest brokers of data and information. Part of being honest is in acknowledging that there are uncertainties. If we ascribe every extreme event to climate change, we can come across as shrill and alarmist. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (www.nsidc.org) is a great example of a scientific organisation making effective use of the internet and the social media. The challenge is that unless one is steeped in the science, the scientific facts based on hard data can be very hard to separate from fiction and deliberate misrepresentation.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a new book. I have always been interested in why people choose to become scientists. What I'm finding is that scientists have some very amusing stories about how they got to where they are, and I'm not above using these stories to poke a little fun at ourselves.
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