Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea just north of the Bering Strait inside the Arctic Circle. PHOTO: NASA/Kathryn Hansen https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/7348953402/in/gallery-pamesecretariat-72157643571635895/

When Mark Serreze first became a climate researcher, he started his field work as an assistant on a project in the Arctic. 

Now the director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado, Serreze recalls his first time on the Arctic ice caps and feeling as though he had arrived home. It began his love for a region that has since drastically changed.  

Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado: PHOTO: Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado

“Those ice caps have now disappeared. They’re gone, they’re dead, disappeared forever and that was consequential in sort of making the issue of climate change very personal,” he said. 

“And ever since then, I’ve taken a much stronger role than I have previously in a lot of outreach and education of what’s happening to our planet. This one kind of hit me. I mean, they’re gone.”

Serezze, along with other researchers, have spent a lifetime studying the Arctic. Due to human-induced climate change, ice caps, sea ice and permafrost are now deteriorating.

With the realization that the ice caps he had been studying no longer existed, Serreze widened his range of research to focus his work on seeing the Arctic system as a whole. He’s studied the northern tundra and boreal forest and, most recently, permafrost in Alaska and Canada. 

“That’s just how I like to work and by doing that I can start to see how this piece of puzzle and how this piece of puzzle all fit in together to give us this picture of the Arctic system and how it’s changing.”

Over the next 100 years, climate change is expected to rapidly increase, causing major changes in how our world functions, along with global warming and rising sea levels, according to research from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. 

With his history of researching the Arctic, Serreze has concluded the disappearing ice caps and sea ice is humans.

“It is very clear now that the cause of the decline is in large part us. In other words, the Arctic is changing at a rapid rate and it is because we are warming the climate because of human activities.” 

The more we produce fossil fuels and release CO2 into the air, the greater the consequences to the northern regions — the Arctic region melting, resulting in rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.  

According to statistics from NASA, “Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13 per cent, per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.” 

As the years go on, more and more sea ice is melting, causing major changes to the way the Arctic system functions and having detrimental effects on the local flora and fauna. 

He says 2007 was a “watershed event” that saw the lowest September sea ice extent on record — which has since been surpassed. He adds that the amount of sea ice in the Arctic regions declines faster each year. 

The levels of sea ice then have an affect on weather patterns, he says.

“We know that the weather in a particular summer has a considerable effect on how much ice you’re going to end up with in September. If it’s a cool summer, more ice. If it’s a warm summer, less ice, and, thus, related to the weather, it’s a stormy summer or it’s a not stormy summer.” 

All the parts of the Arctic affect one another, so when ice caps and sea ice deteriorate, we see other areas follow suit. 

The Arctic is a polar desert with very little moisture and no plants. When the sea ice melts and turns to water, increased runoff from big rivers flow into the Arctic ocean, changing the water system. Hydrology, the study of water distribution and movement, helps Serreze understand these changes and how they affect one another. 

Remote sensing — the process of monitoring the physical characteristics of an area by its reflected and emitted radiation — is critical to understanding the entire Arctic system. The technology helps researchers gain knowledge about areas hard to access and gives accurate readings on sea ice thickness and how it is changing. Permafrost is also measured this way.

Mark Serreze atop Atigun Gorge in Alaska. PHOTO: Courtesy Mark Serreze, NSIDC

“Through remote sensing we can tell you what’s happening across the Arctic in terms of changing vegetation and photosynthesis patterns,” says Serreze. “It is valuable in that sense because it provides that big scale view of things that would be impossible to get just by visiting the north pole.” 

Many structures and pipelines in the northern parts of the world are built on permafrost, especially in Siberia and Alaska. As permafrost continues to melt and disappear, a lot of these structures will suffer. 

“Something just came out on an aggregator called Arctic Today,” says Serreze.  “Of the big problems they are having in Siberia with permafrost, [one is] structures falling down and foundations collapsing. If you look at the Alaska pipeline, it’s built on permafrost and that permafrost is degrading so that is a real concern there.” 

Many buildings in Russia have been destroyed by the permafrost melting and homes are being separated by the earth sinking below them, says a recent news article

“There isn’t a single settlement in Russia’s Arctic where you wouldn’t find a destroyed or deformed building,” Alexey Maslakov, a scientist at Moscow State University, told Reuters.

When permafrost melts, it releases microbes that begin decomposing the frozen ground, which then releases gases into the atmosphere.

“They eat the carbon and breathe out carbon dioxide and methane, depending on the situation, adding to the atmospheric globe of greenhouse gas,” Serreze says. 

A project Serreze is currently working on is based on the study of rain in the Arctic and how it creates snowy beds, including how frozen rain causes them, the effects of the ice layers and how the frequency changes when remote sensing is involved.

He is also studying the physical impacts of climate change and how it’s affecting the people and animals of the Arctic. As more rain is seen across the Arctic region, the ice layers make it harder for local animals to forage for food, causing many to go hungry.

“We’re kind of past the point that climate change is here and happening, it is. What’s more important now is to understand what it means for the planet, and that includes the people and the animals and the plants.”

As he researches more areas of the Arctic and understands the interconnected aspects of the system, Serrezes’ love for the region continues to grow. With all of his time spent in the Arctic, Serreze recalls the feeling of what it was like stepping onto those ice caps for the first time, and how it was like no other he had felt. 

“One thing I remember was, you get up there and it’s absolute silence that you could get, which is a hard thing to find on this planet anymore, absolute silence. It was mesmerizing.” 

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