The Arctic: we don’t know as much about environmental change in the far north as we’d like to think

From The Conversation

December 4, 2018 9.58am EST

The first International Polar Year, held over 1882–1883, was an important event for science. The year was the brainchild of Austrian explorer Karl Weyprecht who, after a few years on different research missions, realised that scientists were missing the big picture by not sharing information with each other.

In 1875, at the annual meeting of German Scientists and Physicians in Graz, Austria, he proposed the setting up of an observational network of research stations to monitor the Arctic climate. It was the beginning of collaborative research in the region. Today, data collected 134 years ago on temperature, air pressure, or wind speed is still freely available.

The Metamorphosis of Polar Ice – Weyprecht’s account of an 1872-74 Austro-Hungarian mission to the Arctic. Karl Weyprecht/British Library

There have been two more International Polar Year events since that inaugural one, most recently in 2007–2008, along with numerous other collaborative expeditions and research missions aimed at understanding aspects of Arctic biology, ecology, climate or geology.

But these co-ordinated efforts are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, most research locations north of the Arctic Circle have developed via a range of particular historical contingencies (easy access by boat or road, for instance, or a stable and open political climate), many of which have had nothing to do with scientific considerations.

Since the Arctic covers some 14.5m square kilometers, and conducting research in remote locations is very expensive, time consuming and often dangerous, the result is an extremely uneven concentration of research effort.

The region is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth and its polar bears and melting glaciers have become a key symbols of climate change. But the Arctic, it seems, is not as well researched as we think it is.

Hard facts
We wanted to put some hard numbers behind this opinion, and to explore what these geographic gaps may mean in terms of broader scientific understanding. That’s what inspired our research project, carried out with colleagues and published earlier in 2018 in Nature Ecology & Evolution. We looked at 1,840 published studies across the Arctic dating back to 1951.

These studies covered nine broad disciplines in the natural and physical sciences and contained 6,246 sampling locations. We also looked at a total of 58,215 citations that refer to the studies. Citations of a particular study signify the amount of times it has been mentioned in other studies and is one indicator of importance within its discipline.

We found that a third of all study citations originate from sites within 50km of two research stations: Toolik Lake in Alaska and Abisko in Sweden. Our results show that for two important variables, temperature and vegetation density, the present pattern of sampling locations in the Arctic represents the average conditions well, but does not represent extreme conditions that are widespread across the region.

Red circles = 50km radius around Abisko and Toolik scientific research stations. Peter Hermes Furian / shutterstock


The focus on Scandinavia and Alaska means that results from these sites are extended to other locations. The assumption that conditions in two well-studied sites are representative across the Arctic results in the under-sampling of more remote locations. These include vast regions that are relatively colder and warming more rapidly such as Russia’s northern coastline or the thousands of islands that make up Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

It’s a substantial unknown. Although other parts of Canada and Russia are reasonably well sampled, they too have received considerably less citations, which leads to the poorer dissemination of the knowledge created in these studies. In this way, our understanding of the impact of climate change on the Arctic is biased in favour of sites that are well connected and well resourced.

Read the full story here.

HT/Clyde Spencer




46 thoughts on “The Arctic: we don’t know as much about environmental change in the far north as we’d like to think

  1. “Why are you looking for your lost keys under the lamp-post when you lost them over there in the dark?”
    ” Because the light’s better here. “

  2. The two sites are also roughly at the same latitude and have about the same relative exposure to land and sea. Both are also in the latitude range whose yearly average temperature is about 0C where sea ice builds in the winter and melts in the summer. Change at this latitude tends to be larger than change in any other latitude owing to the reflectivity differences between ice and no ice as the circumpolar latitude whose yearly average temperature is 0C migrates up and down.

    • That’s an interesting theory. But is there reliable data, with correctly calculated margins of error, to support it?

      • Patrick,

        Of course I have supporting evidence.

        The data I’ll use comes from GISS via the ISCCP project. You can visualize the range of the data by the distribution of monthly samples. The absolute accuracy is only on the order of +/- 15% when considering data spanning dozens of satellites over many decades, but the relative differences measured by a consistent set of satellites are accurate to well within 1%, most importantly always including the relative differences between adjacent slices of latitude.

        This plot shows how the relationship between cloud coverage and the temperature reverses above 273K only to flip back to the same direction at temperatures above 300K. You might notice that the response of clouds to temperature is similar to that between the voltage and current a tunnel diode. This occurs in response to the much larger relative difference between cloud reflectivity and surface reflectivity that occurs above 0C.

        Related behavior is observed in the next plot of surface reflectivity vs. BB emissions of the surface at its reported temperature where 315 W/m^2 corresponds to 0C.

        The theoretical sensitivity has a 1/T^3 dependence on the starting temperature, so it’s larger at colder temperatures to begin with. The decreased surface reflectivity above 0C results in more solar energy, warmer temperatures and a sharp sensitivity spike transitioning through 0C, both at it warms and as it cools. Additionally, the GHG effect from water vapor becomes sharply more significant above 0C. This spike in sensitivity is often experimentally measured and then improperly extrapolated across all temperatures.

        I see some kind of representative feature around 0C in most of the plots of this kind. For more info about the data in the various plots and many more plots like these, go here:

  3. From 1922…..
    The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot, according to a report to the Commerce Department yesterday from Consulate at Bergen Norway.
    Reports from fishermen, seal hunters and explorers all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone.
    Exploration expeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes.
    Soundings to a depth of 3,100 meters showed the Gulf Stream still very warm.
    Great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, the report continued, while at many points well known glaciers have entirely disappeared.
    Very few seals and no white fish are found in the eastern Arctic, while vast shoals of herring and smelt which have never before ventured so far north, are being encountered in the old seal fishing grounds.
    Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.
    * * *
    * * * * * *
    I must apologize.
    I neglected to mention that this report was from November 2, 1922, as reported by the AP and published in The Washington Post – 94 years ago.
    This must have been caused by the Model T Ford’s emissions or possibly from horse and cattle flatulence?

    • Just as an aside, I also do research on emission measurements of methane at dairy farms. Actually, the cows emit more methane through burping than they do through flatulence. So if we could just keep those cows from burping all of our problems would be solved and there would be no more storms or droughts or floods or fires.

      • At lot of work is being done in New Zealand to address that very issue. Research being conducted in to cattle feed to reduce the incidence of burps. Quite honestly, it is a waste of time, but I guess there is Govn’t money in it.

      • Max Duplika
        “I also do research on emission measurements of methane at dairy farms.”

        I propose gastric bypass surgery for all cows.
        That will solve the climate change crisis.
        It was those pesky cows all along.

        Cow methane seems like a poor choice
        of subjects for your research
        — why don’t you do research on exploding silicone
        br-east implants, which is another crisis?

    • State Department in October 1922 and published in the Monthly Weather Review:

      The Arctic seems to be warming up. Reports from fisherman, seal hunters, and explorers who sail the seas about Spitzbergen and the eastern Arctic, all point to a radical change in climatic conditions, and hitherto underheard-of high temperatures in that part of the earth’s surface.

      In August, 1922, the Norwegian Department of Commerce sent an expedition to Spitzbergen and Bear Island under the leadership of Dr. Adolf Hoel, lecturer on geology at the University of Christiania. Its purpose was to survey and chart the lands adjacent to the Norwegian mines on those islands, take soundings of the adjacent waters, and make other oceanographic investigations.

      Ice conditions were exceptional. In fact, so little ice has never before been noted. The expedition all but established a record, sailing as far north as 81° 29′ in ice-free water. This is the farthest north ever reached with modern oceanographic apparatus.

      The character of the waters of the great polar basin has heretofore been practically unknown. Dr. Hoel reports that he made a section of the Gulf Stream at 81° north latitude and took soundings to a depth of 3,100 meters. These show the Gulf Stream very warm, and it could be traced as a surface current till beyond the 81st parallel. The warmth of the waters makes it probable that the favorable ice conditions will continue for some time.

      In connection with Dr. Hoel’s report, it is of interest to note the unusually warm summer in Arctic Norway and the observations of Capt. Martin Ingebrigsten, who has sailed the eastern Arctic for 54 years past. He says that he first noted warmer conditions in 1918, that since that time it has steadily gotten warmer, and that to-day the Arctic of that region is not recognizable as the same region of 1868 to 1917.

      Many old landmarks are so changed as to be unrecognizable. Where formerly great masses of ice were found, there are now often moraines, accumulations of earth and stones. At many points where glaciers formerly extended far into the sea they have entirely disappeared.

  4. We don’t know as much as we think about pretty much everything.

    A fool is right in his own mind, a wise man seeks the counsel of others.

  5. “The region is warming faster than anywhere else in the world .>>…………..”

    If you click on this you get a Guardian typical scare story. Oh deary me: doesn’t give me much faith in these people to carry out further research.

    • Right, I was all ready to start my own thread on this but I can see you beat me to it. I was going to title mine with Logical Fail! The article starts off by saying

      The Arctic: we don’t know as much about environmental change in the far north as we’d like to think

      …and then tosses out “The [Artic] region is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth…” I have been wondering for months to even years… if the Artic is made up entirely of ocean, so that we have no permanent weather station to measure (puzzlingly named surface air temperatures, when they’re taken at a height ~1.5-2 meters above the surface) air temperatures, then how do we know the Artic is “…warming faster than anywhere else on Earth…” when we can’t(haven’t) measure(d) it?

      Helpfully, there was I link, I thought, Ahah! At last I will find out how we know this! So I clicked on the link and found a… Gruniad article!!! With one picture of (perhaps) one piece of data, showing a one-time temperature (perhaps) anomaly, compared to a completely unsourced long-term average, and nothing to tell us what that measurement is! One location? An average of several locations? An average of several in-filled locations, meaning nothing better than the original measurement at a single location, but now it’s supposed to represent multiple locations so it’s “weighted” accordingly? Nothing! So we (or at least I) still don’t know! How do we know the Artic is warming faster than any place else on Earth? Only because the models tell us that is what should be maybe happening?

      This is starting to sound like that “fact” that I saw dozens of supposedly serious articles and papers toss out, killer whales have become so contaminated with PCBs that if/when one washes up on shore the body must be handle as hazardous waste. Turns out that was another made-up fact, based on a comment someone made 30 years ago about, after a single carcass washed up on the Oregon shore, he briefly considered if it needed to be handled as hazardous waste. Turns out they didn’t, and although they took samples and sent them to the lab, they didn’t have the luxury of waiting weeks for the results so they went ahead and disposed of the carcass as they would have any other marine mammal stranding, and it turned out when the results finally did come in there was nothing to worry about anyway. But even after that debunking I have seen the statement in print a few more times.

      So this is another one… how many times will we see this in print, with no justification or data provided, presented as gospel because everybody-knows-that? I hope this one dies a natural death, and soon.

  6. The region is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth ….

    You know…..this is not difficult
    At least a dozen outfits produce a North Atlantic SST loop.
    Any one that was paying attention back in Feb….saw that warm water get pumped into the Arctic
    …and saw exactly what the atmospheric loop did after that

    …will these same loons pay attention when the AMO crashes?

    • The AMO has begun a negative turn of late. If it continues, we could see a return to near 1970’s weather patterns, . So sayeth as I comprehend it.

    • And that, right there, is more evidence than anyone else has presented! But I would like to see your data. Are you just explaining that it was easy to predict the “warm” (temperatures never even got up to the freezing point of water, nothing that reduced ice mass) spike in those temperatures the Guardian showed on their one pic of data? Or was that one pixel of data? Still, given that a PDO full-cycle is 60 years, and a ENSO cycle is how long? and an AMO full cycle is how long? we need enough data to start everything at zero, run it through enough cycles that all the cycles get to a zero point with data departing at the same slope where we started. Once you have that much data, THEN you can start to make comparisons from the exact same point in all the cycles to the exact same point previous set of cycles earlier, and tell me if there’s a difference. Sort of like doing a full Life Cycle Cost Analysis on a central plant upgrade with a bunch of different pieces of equipment, each with its own predicted useful life.

  7. It’s amazing really – despite the lack of good research and data collection in the Arctic, they still know that “The region is warming faster than anywhere else in the world.” Nothing short of magical! /sarc

    • Paul ==> They fail to mention that the warming only occurs during the winter months, with summer temps normal or slightly below.
      They also omit that the “warmer” winter temps are still well below 0C.
      They also have not considered the teleconnections between the polar jet and the Pacific SSTs, and the effect on nighttime lows when surface air has higher enthalpy due to a warm SST.
      Yes, there is no question that the poles (and in particular, the Arctic) is where global warming has been mostly observed (in the satellite era). Bringing that into a realistic context eliminates any cause for alarm.

  8. My impression is that the Soviets spent a lot more time in the high arctic than anyone else. The first Soviet expedition was in 1935 but the North East passage had been known for centuries.

    In the 1970s I knew a man who had been on Soviet arctic expeditions in the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t think the Canadians got really serious about arctic research until the 1970s.

    I’m guessing that there’s a lot of Soviet data somewhere.

    • I’m guessing that there’s a lot of Soviet data somewhere.

      “The Voyage of the Chelyuskin” expedition (1933), chronicled by its members, is available in English translation. Also, GHCN has several pristine coastal or island records in the Siberian Arctic that extend back into the early 1920s.

    • Oh yes, there is a lot of data going back to 1933 when the Northern Sea Route was opened. But mostly it only covers the areas traversed by the convoys, and the summer-autumn season.

      The really data-deficient area is northern Canada. There is probably a fair amount of data in RCMP and Hudson Bay Company archives, but as far as i know nobody has looked at it.

      How many people are aware that Hudson Bay company vessels actually traversed the entire North-West Passage in 1937 for example?

  9. I’m pretty sure there is a direct correlation between the number of active/commissioned ice breakers and the loss of pack ice.

    • Really? That’s your impression of arctic sea ice extents? Ice breakers control the extents? Tell me you jest, I beg you!

    • Actually, I don’t jest. For a while, I was trying to compile a list of ice breaker fleet sizes by year but got bored and wandered off.

    • Do you realize that a heavy icebreaker can only break through thin ice of 1 meter or less thickness, whereas the average thickness of the Arctic polar ice cap is in excess of 3 meters?

      Do you also realize that a heavy icebreaker can only break that very thin ice at a speed of only about 1.5 knots, or about 2.5 fps. Thus a single heavy icebreaker with a beam of about 80 ft (typical for a modern heavy icebreaker) can clear a maximum of 200 square feet per second, or about 400 acres/day or 144,000 ac /year or 224 square miles per year. The Arctic Ocean has a maximum sea ice extent that of course varies but averages somewhere around 6+ million square miles.

      So even if modern heavy icebreakers could break through the average sea ice thickness – they cannot – it would take a fleet of 27,000 heavy icebreakers operating, without interruption, 24/7/365 days per year to clear all that ice. The fewer than 200 heavy icebreakers in the world, most of which do not even operate in the Arctic Ocean, but rather in coastal waters like around Murmansk or in the St. Lawrence Seaway, could not even break up as much as eight tenths of one percent of the Arctic icecap.

      • You only have to bust up the ice next to shore, and the whole ice cap in that area is unpinned from shore. A small fleet of nuclear powered Russian icebreaker can bust up the entire Arctic shoreline on the Siberian side of the Arctic Ocean, and then that ice is free to be blown by the wind or melt quicker once it is opened up. Ice breaking is generally done in late fall or in the spring that the icebreakers are opening things up, and it it doesn’t re-freeze in spring and starts melting earlier. I really think all our ice breaking activity has led to some effect in the Arctic. Just think how a lake thaws first by the shoreline every break-up, and then it is just a matter of a few short weeks and the ice is moving around and piled up wherever the wind blows and then it melts faster. Everything changes everything. It has some effect… how much is up for debate.

        • No icebreaker can break the typical 3-m ice cap. No can do. Doesn’t matter if it is nearshore or 500 miles from shore, 3 meters cannot be broke by any existing icebreaker. 1 meter or less, that’s it.

          Ice also constantly shifts due to prevailing winds and ocean currents, creating constantly shifting ice ridges that can be tens of meters thick, with 7/8 below water .. meaning you break up a patch of ice, and an hour later it closes again.

          Icebreaking is simply impractical for creating a “northwest passage” or such. It only works during a period of a few weeks each spring or fall in between fully open water and fully capped over.

          The reality is that nearly all icebreakers only work in very limited areas serving active ocean shipping terminals and passes, like the area north of Murmansk, or in the St. Lawrence Seaway. The notion that a fleet of icebreakers can build new year around continenantal passages is simply fantasy, not reality.

          • The Artika class Russian icebreakers are listed for 2 – 2.8 meter thick ice, per Wikipedia. An NPR report suggests 13 feet which would be almost 4 meters. The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is rated to 21 feet. Would you like to reconsider your claim?

  10. What we do know is that the peak yearly temperatures achieved throughout the Siberian Arctic in the 1930s have only recently been equaled or slightly surpassed in most actual station records. It’s only through magical data adjustments that anything “unprecedented” has emerged in non-urban records.

  11. I recommend the following reading for those interested in Weyprecht’s IPY Expedition:

    “Climate Lessons from the First International Polar Year*”
    by: Kevin R. Wood and James E. Overland
    Received: 5 July 2006; Published Online: 1 December 2006

    The authors provide a very insightful comment by Carl Weyprecht:

    But whatever interest all these observations may possess, they do not possess that scientific
    value, even supported by a long column of figures, which under other circumstances might have been the case. They only furnish us with a picture of the extreme effects of the forces of Nature in the Arctic regions, but leave us completely in the dark with respect to their causes (Weyprecht 1875b).

    I would suggest organizations like NOAA/NSIDC are still completely in the dark as to “thinking they know something yet that just ain’t so.”

  12. hey! I’m getting a warning from my Norton anti virus off this link… unwanted redirection to scam sites or some such…

  13. Great extension of “Arctic”. Sweeden has never been in arctic area. It is quite another climate. Meaningless.

  14. Abisko isn’t even a part of the Arctic proper. It is close to but below the treeline and there is no permafrost. Annual average temperature > 0 C, warmest month >10 C.

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