Making it Real: My Sojourn in Fairbanks

The University of Alaska at Fairbanks is on a high ridge overlooking the city. My cheerful host, a young researcher at the Geophysical Institute, told me about Fairbanks smog. Inefficient wood-burning stoves, diesel trucks and oil and gas industry exhalations all contribute to fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, which, along with a temperature inversion, produces a shawl of pollution that lies over the town. The university is rescued from this because it perches on a dramatically high ridge overlooking vast flatlands that are ringed by mountains. In the distance one can see craggy snow-capped peaks. Yet, walking on campus, I sometimes saw fine black dust on piles of snow by the sidewalk – perhaps the origin was local rather than the city proper. Atop one snowbank there were little rings of black dust surrounding small chunks of ice. The ice chunks lay on the snowbank like diamonds, each with its little ring. I thought perhaps the black dust had caused some snow to melt, and it froze overnight as ice, expelling the black dust into rings.

International Arctic Research Center, UAF

International Arctic Research Center, UAF

Incidentally black carbon such as I’ve described above, when suspended in the atmosphere, is said to be the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon-dioxide. (The role of black carbon deposits on snow causing melting has been observed on a local scale (e.g surrounding a village) but its global role in ice melt is less certain).

The Western end of the ridge on which the campus sits is occupied by scientific research buildings, which give way, as you go down the hill, to science departments and the arts and humanities. At the farthest Western end sits the new and shiny International Arctic Research Center, which is anatomically attached to the older Geophysical Institute. The IARC is named after its founding director, now emeritus, the eminent Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu, who is the leading expert on auroras. Outside his field his reputation is not great – he is a noted climate denier/ skeptic, unfortunately associated with the conservative Heartland Institute. It is a very odd thing that the IARC, an institute with a major focus on climate change research, should have been led by a denier. I asked one scientist working there what that was like, and got an embarrassed shrug. “But he’s a very nice man,” I was told. Well, why not? Climate deniers aren’t necessarily unpleasant people, even if they have a blinkered attitude toward data.

In the two days I was there, I spoke with a number of people – a biologist, a geophysicist who is an expert on sea ice, a climate modeler, an expert on remote sensing and cloud physics, the director of education and outreach, the coordinator of a network between scientists and community working on climate adaptation, a professor of English who taught science fiction, a colleague of his who turned out to be a fellow author in an anthology, and her husband, an expert on Alaskan Native narrative traditions. I was spoiled by the IARC librarian with cups of tea and extra copies of publications. I also attended a talk by a major political scientist from Norway about the geopolitics of the Arctic, surely a subject as frightening as climate change.

So what did I learn? As I look through my notes and piles of publications and other material I accumulated during my visit, I know I’ve given myself a homework assignment that will take weeks. But some things stand out.

The Meaning and Significance of Sea Ice
I find myself totally fascinated by sea ice, which is frozen sea water, not icebergs. It forms in the Arctic when the temperature of the atmosphere drops in the autumn, and can be up to several meters thick. Thinner sea ice melts by the end of summer, but multi-year ice, by definition, lasts year-round. Sea ice is a dynamic entity, always on the move, sometimes subtly, sometimes dangerously quickly. The wind and the currents move it around, and sometimes a crack can appear without warning, widening into a lead, a long finger of liquid water, which may, under the right conditions, cause the ice you are on to break away from shore and go floating off into the Arctic Ocean before you can blink. I heard more than one story about scientists camped out on sea ice under what appeared to be perfect conditions, being abruptly told by a native elder to get off the ice NOW. Having learned to trust the superior and sometimes uncanny observational skills of the native Inupiat, they complied, just in time before the ice they were on abruptly broke off and floated away.

Sea ice extent in the Arctic has been monitored via satellites since about 1970. The area waxes and wanes with winter and summer, but there has been a downward trend in summer sea ice, the most dramatic of which was the 2007 melt in September. Why is all this important? The Arctic is crucial to the Earth’s energy budget and hence to the average global surface temperature. All that shiny ice reflects much of the sunlight falling on it back into space, instead of absorbing it and thereby warming the earth. Its shininess (or albedo, the fraction of the sun’s radiation that is reflected back) varies from about 0.5 (plain ice) to 0.9 (if there is fresh snow on it). Dark sea water has a much lower albedo, so it tends to absorb more solar radiation, which contributes to global warming. If you warm the planet by putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, you melt sea ice, which means less solar radiation reflected into space and more absorption by the darker water, which warms the air/ water even more, which melts more ice, which…

This vicious cycle is more gently called the ice-albedo feedback. It is the main reason why climate change is happening in the Arctic much faster than the rest of the globe, a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification. It is also why some scientists are worried about tipping points – sudden, runaway changes, irreversible on human time scales, that catapult the climate system into a new state. The truth is that while current knowledge gives us a basis on which to make reasonable long-term predictions, we simply don’t know enough about the complex dynamics of climate. One climate scientist I spoke with talked about the crucial importance of clouds – not just in climate physics in general, but in the context of sea ice. Clouds can both heat and cool, and what they end up actually doing depends on the kind of cloud, its height, and so on. Cloud physics, I knew, was one of the key uncertainties in climate models. In the Arctic clouds affect heating and cooling, and also how much snow falls on the ice, and therefore the albedo of the sea ice as well. So there is a great need to understand clouds, and IARC scientists are involved in the Department of Energy ARM Climate Research Facility in Barrow. From a kindly geophysicist’s office in IARC I got a remote, web-cam tour of the facility that lies half-buried in the snowy tundra.

But opinion about tipping points varies, pointing to our incomplete knowledge of the climate as a complex dynamical system. A climate modeler with whom I spoke, who talked eloquently of the need to get beyond models and into understanding climate dynamics better, was less worried about irreversible, catastrophic changes, pointing to the possibility of negative feedbacks (regulators rather than amplifiers) that might counter the ice-albedo effect.

Sea ice that disappears too fast and in too great an area will affect climate through the ice-albedo feedback. But sea ice is also a freshwater reservoir. If enough melts to fragment the remaining ice, some of the ice could float away and end up melting in the northern Atlantic. A sudden influx of freshwater from the ice-melt could disrupt the giant ocean conveyor belt, the thermohaline circulation which, among other things, gives Europe its balmy winters. Apparently in the cold, polar waters, salinity affects density more than temperature does.

There is still so much to be learned about sea ice. The Sea Ice group at UAF is doing seminal work. For example they are doing in situ measurements of its thermal conductivity, and their discoveries are valuable input for sea ice models, which seem to have underestimated this quantity. There are projects on ice dynamics, ice ecology, and snow on sea ice, to name just a few more.

As I spoke with people, often being led from one person to another through spontaneous or by-chance meetings, I began to realize that sea ice had, in a manner of speaking, many more dimensions than I’d originally envisaged. In one hallway in the Geophysical Institute the wall was bright with posters describing the microscopic structure of sea ice. Pictures showed complex networks within highly magnified images of ice, and yet others revealed the brownish-green stains of ice algae on the undersides of the sea ice cores. The sea ice group at UAF was clearly very active, and interdisciplinary as well. I came across posters of papers in which native elders were credited as experts, and there were clearly signs of the collaboration I’d read about before arriving here, between scientists and community members. All this whetted my curiosity. Even scientists in the field often carry the invisible walls of their laboratory with them. These scientists had broken out of the ivory tower, metaphorical and otherwise! What kind of results would they get? What would they learn? How did this change their conceptions of science, scientists, and how science was done?

Among the first things I learned through my conversations was that the microscopic properties of sea ice are as crucial as its bulk properties, and that there is an ongoing effort to learn how the two connect. Sea ice forms when the atmospheric temperature drops to below freezing in late autumn, and ice crystals start forming and coming up to the surface of the ocean, where they stick together. As the ice forms, the salt gets pushed out from the crystals, creating pockets and channels that contain brine. The brine gets locked into the ice until a summer partial melt occurs, which allows the brine channels to expand and connect with one another, and thus some of the brine can flow out into the ocean underneath. This very cold, salty water, being denser than its environs, sinks toward the ocean bed. (I don’t know whether this is powerful enough to generate ocean currents, but perhaps it plays a role in cycling nutrients vertically? I have some papers from the climate modeler I spoke with, on my to-read pile. Her work concerns the effect of sea ice change on atmospheric and ocean circulation. Perhaps I will find answers there.) Meanwhile the older the ice, the less salty it gets, so that multi-year ice can be used as freshwater supply for coastal communities.

And the brine channels in the ice? Seen under a microscope, they are fascinating – long, thin tubules connected complexly to each other. These are the site of an astounding microscopic ecosystem, in which the ice algae are only one component. The ice algae, in fact, are the bottom of the Arctic food chain. Little shrimpy creatures feed on them, forming the major food supply for fish, which get eaten by seals, which get eaten by polar bears.

I had, incidentally, been introduced to a quite other aspect of sea ice before my trip through a gorgeously illustrated book called “The Meaning of Ice,” in which natives from Canada and Alaska had written about different aspects of sea ice related to culture and survival. It was brought home to me how cultures situated in and informed by geography depend on that geography for their survival, a phenomenon that Susan Crate, the author of the paper I discussed in my last post, had also spoken of. My introduction to the science of sea ice served to round out this knowledge.

Notice something interesting about my ramblings on sea ice? Look how many disciplines are involved! We have the usual suspects – physics, geology, chemistry, biology – but also economics, and sociology, and anthropology.

All this learning about sea ice made me impatient to get to Barrow (next stop) to see it for myself.
Community-Science partnerships

I’ve already mentioned that some UAF scientists collaborate with native elders of the Inupiat community in Barrow to learn about sea ice. These ‘native experts’ are given full credit in scientific publications. One geophysicist spoke eloquently of the observational skills of the elders – not only did they notice things that were apparently off the radar of most other people, but their descriptions of phenomena were astonishingly precise as to when, how, to what extent, under what conditions. By the sound of it, these elders were natural scientists! “Just as good as top NSF scholars,” I was told. High praise indeed considering how protective of their turf and their specialized education most scientists can be. I hoped to meet some of these legendary elders.

I learned that this collaboration was not limited to the Barrow region. A biologist working on seals in the West coast of Alaska had partnered with Yupik communities. But the situation of the Inupiat and the Yupik people was not the same. Oil and gas money had made the communities of the Arctic North Slope relatively well off, with grocery stores, schools and hospitals and even a two-year accredited college. Although subsistence whaling was culturally important to them, they also had other alternatives. By comparison the people who lived a subsistence lifestyle in the Bering Strait area had very little infrastructure. Researchers working with them had to bring their own food. Their difficulties also meant that in general they tended to be less accepting of the oil and gas economy and were very concerned about the possibility of oil spills in the area. If one occurred, there was no infrastructure to take care of them. In fact they were also concerned about shipping in the Bering strait, which was hurting the whales on which they depended for food. Like the Inupiats to the north, they were also noticing changes in the landscape, weather patterns, and animals.

Scientists working with the community were in a position to learn about the community’s resilience or vulnerability to climate change, as well as the effects of climate change in that region. Part of adaptation to climate change involves informing and preparing people. I asked various researchers whether they were in a position to transmit their knowledge to local people too, or was the information flow just one-way? I got a range of answers, but my general understanding was that climate change was essentially an accepted fact in the native communities in which these scientists worked. The evidence was before their eyes, and the deviations from the norm were far beyond anything that was contained in ancestral memory. No climate change denial here! But as far as I could tell, there was no concerted effort to transmit knowledge of global climate change to various communities, at least not by scientists. This was something I had been interested in for a while, from my work with students in my classroom, but also from my conversations in India about public awareness. If the community knows climate change is real, and knows how it is impacting them locally, is that enough to prepare them for changes? Perhaps. Is that enough to get them to act in ways that might mitigate further climate change? On a global as well as local scale? Maybe not. Who knows? Yet I think it is an important question.

The fact that communities need to be informed to prepare for the climate change that is already here and in the pipeline means that scientists, policy makers and regional managers have a special responsibility to work together. But here’s a problem. Climate models seem to predict coarse-grain features pretty well so far, but when it comes to regional, short term projections, there is a lot of uncertainty. After all the grid size for current climate models is only about a 100 km x 100 km. Yet communities that need to plan for the coming changes typically exist on a smaller time and space scale than climate models are good for. So what are they to do?

The answer is both logical and imaginative: Scenarios.



I spoke with people involved in a unique collaboration between scientists and community – SNAP, or Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning. Here’s the key concept. When there is a lot of uncertainty, especially in a highly non-linear system where uncertainties are an inherent feature, you, the scientist, present different scenarios as to what might happen to the climate of a region, based on the science. A scenario is “a collective set of assumptions about possible futures.” The community – planners, municipalities, businesses – can then decide how to take action given the various scenarios. Such an approach also prepares them for changes from one scenario to another. This powerpoint slide show gives an idea of how SNAP works.

There is something very science-fictional about the idea of scenarios. After all what does science fiction do but posit a possible answer to a ‘what-if’ question? The biologist to whom I spoke, who is involved in a planning and leadership role in SNAP, unsurprisingly turns out to be a science fiction reader!
• The New Geopolitics of the Arctic – talk by Willy Ostreng

Willy Ostreng's Talk at UAF

Willy Ostreng’s Talk at UAF

Willy Ostreng is a political scientist associated with the Ocean Futures institute in Oslo, with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and with UAF. I first came across his work via an essay called Reductionism versus Holism: Contrasting Approaches?

This short article speaks to two subjects close to my heart: 1) the division between the ‘two cultures’ of science and arts/humanities, and 2) the limitations of the idea of reductionism, which has guided (and also misguided) the process of science. The article calls for the need to consider real-world complex systems not just in terms of their parts taken in isolation (reductionism) but also in terms of the relationships between them (holism).

So when I heard that Willy Ostreng was going to speak on the UAF campus on my last day in Fairbanks, I made sure to attend. The hall was full – later I learned that the earnest scribblers in the audience were mostly political science students, probably at the graduate level, and that the talk was organized to inaugurate a new concentration in Arctic studies. The need for such a thing became obvious as the talk progressed.

Willy Ostreng started with what science tells us about changing climatic conditions in the Arctic. Having succinctly described the projections of sea ice retreat and the possibility of no summer ice before mid-century, he then went on to detail, with commendable clarity, the political changes that would follow in the wake of the disappearing ice.

In what follows below I include some of what he said, combined with my readings before my trip (one interesting reference being the book “After the Ice” by Alun Anderson).

The Arctic Ocean is bounded by many countries, and in that sense is a lot more like the Mediterranean sea than any of the other large oceans. For all of human history it has been bleak, cold, ice-bound and inhospitable. During the cold war only US and Soviet submarines prowled its depths, incidentally gathering interesting scientific data that later became declassified. The extremely harsh conditions made it difficult and pointless to conduct much economic activity in the region, even though it presented a much shorter path between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans than did the Panama Canal. There were some explorations and many tragedies associated with the Arctic, but it stood mostly inviolable. Interestingly, the Soviets recognized the value of the Arctic long before the Americans (many of the great Russian rivers drain into it), and set up ports along their coast, developing the North-East passage, which has the least amount of multi-year ice. Thus the Russian Arctic coastline has some supportive infrastructure such as search-and-rescue and a coast guard system; ironically, this is a result of Soviet planning. The Americans, being motivated by profit and the free market, did not think it worth the money to do the same. They have still to catch up.

Now here’s what’s new. The Arctic is far more accessible now than it has ever been, thanks to global warming. With the retreat of the ice, not only are shipping routes possible that could not be conceived of before, but there are estimated to be HUGE reserves of oil and gas under the ocean floor. Most of the Arctic is rather shallow, and it seems that most of these reserves are within 200 nautical miles of shorelines, at depths of less than 500 m, very much accessible by today’s technologies. The old Soviet dream of controlling the Arctic is now becoming realistic for the Russians. The first Russian oil rig started operating in December 2013 off the East Siberian Sea. Oil companies are drooling at the prospect of drilling in the Arctic – Shell, BP, StatOil, to name a few. There are also territorial claims being contested and much potential for conflict. Legally, sea ice is an ambiguous thing – is it water? Is it land? The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets criteria for ownership, is, for various reasons, hard to implement. There is an Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization comprising 8 countries that ring the Arctic Ocean – and it is surely a measure of the increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic that 12 countries not from the Arctic have observer status in this council. [Interestingly, as I learned elsewhere, indigenous people’s groups such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council, have participant status in the Arctic Council. The ICC was formed in Barrow, my next stop].

It seems that all members of the Arctic Council agree that the Arctic Ocean environment must be preserved, and at the same time, all want to benefit from its resources. In my notes I have this quote, whether from the speaker or from the countries involved, I can’t recall: “In order to protect the environment, start exploitation.” The speaker mentioned that since coal was the worst fossil fuel, the oil and gas reserves of the Arctic become crucial for meeting energy needs in a more sustainable way.

As I was listening I found myself overtaken by a sense of incredulity. Looking around, I saw students obediently scribbling down their notes, nodding from time to time. The speaker, whose essay had been so illuminating, seemed about as far removed as was possible to get from his own recommendation of looking at the whole as much as the parts. Surely I wasn’t the only one missing something?

Here’s what I found incredible: burning fossil fuels are what caused the Arctic to start melting at an unprecedented rate, affecting global climate in ways that will be our misfortune to discover. The melting is making more fossil fuel reserves accessible. So what’s the logical thing to do, in a world of rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, and higher average global temperatures? Yes, that’s right: drill for more fossil fuels!

Doesn’t this resemble the ice-albedo feedback? Burn fossil fuels, melt ice, find more fossil fuels to burn, melt more ice… This is a vicious cycle too, a positive feedback loop, an amplifier of global climate change.

While the speaker spoke eloquently about the opening up of the Arctic, I wanted to stand up and shout “Look! The Emperor has no clothes!” Instead I waited until the Q&A, until after various students had finished asking technical political questions about shipping routes and economics. I kept waiting for someone to point out the logical fallacy, the elephant in the room, but nobody did. So at the end I asked very politely that given the recent research [1] limiting how much more CO2 we could let into the atmosphere before hitting 2 C warming by 2100 – a number that was approximately 565 Gt in 2011 and is undoubtedly less now in 2014 – and given that the current global fossil fuel reserves already in hand, if burned, would release 2795 Gt, five times over the ‘safe’ limit – what sense did it make to continue to look for and use fossil fuels?

Dr. Ostreng thought for a few moments. Then he said, with an apologetic air, that renewables wouldn’t be able to meet growing energy demands, and for the next 30 years fossil fuels would have to fill the gap. He concluded with a statement that still reverberates in my head.

“We will regret it. But that is reality.”

Not once did he talk about the need to change that reality. It was taken as a given, something one doesn’t even question. Presumably in the past there were other things that weren’t questioned by the powers that be – slavery and apartheid being among them. I can imagine some pundit from the slavery era in the United States shaking his head sorrowfully, invoking economic arguments as uncontestable, unchangeable reality. Surely we owe the younger generation – our children, our students – something better than that?

I left that lecture hall with a sense of deep betrayal, and a new understanding of the gaps and divisions among and between academia, centers of power, and people. Nobody was talking about the need to change things, to live differently, to push the powers-that-be to appropriate action. Even among the scientists who were so concerned with global climate change, and had devoted their lives to studying and understanding it, none verbalized to me the need for change. Perhaps it is not something scientists are comfortable discussing. Perhaps they preferred not to talk about it to a stranger, especially when there wasn’t much time. But I found the silence on the subject very odd. There was much talk about adaptation and important work being done with communities to prepare them for coming changes – but all the fuss and bother stopped short (as far as I could tell) of imagining and moving toward change that would mitigate as well as adapt.

The Alyeska Pipeline and Me in Fairbanks

The Alyeska Pipeline and Me in Fairbanks

So these are some of the highlights of my stay in Fairbanks. Among the things I haven’t mentioned were a visit to the Museum of the North, which houses the university collection of native art and artifacts, as well as displays of wildlife, Fairbanks history, and climate change impacts. My discussion with the education outreach director was also very interesting (the theme of community-science partnerships in the context of teacher education and K-12 learning), deserving of a whole separate post.

Native technical skills and art on display at the Museum of the North, UAF

Native technical skills and art on display at the Museum of the North, UAF

Overall I learnt a lot, thanks to the generosity of the people who spent hours making time for a stranger. More than anything I learned the extent of my ignorance, but what I did learn clarified directions for my project. Plus I discovered something interesting about process. Normally, when going on a trip that is costly in terms of time, money and carbon, one would plan everything down to the last detail. But this was not possible in the context of my project and the exploratory nature of the questions I had raised. I didn’t know enough to know what questions would turn out to be important, and what new questions might arise. Instead of forcing things to be very specific, I decided instead to keep my mind totally receptive to possibility. I had started with one contact in Anchorage, who had encouraged me to come to Alaska, and had put me in touch with a couple of key people in Fairbanks and Barrow. But over email I couldn’t nail down specific times to meet people, all of whom were busy — and I was afraid I’d go there and not learn very much. Once I got there, I had to surrender to chance, faith in the generosity of people, and a certain amount of pigheadedness, all of which, I discovered, allowed for multiple serendipitous connections. For instance: I had emailed a professor of English at UAF before going to Alaska, because he taught science fiction and I thought it might be nice to say hello. Result: he invited me to speak to his class, which I did when I got there. Result: I met a colleague of his who turned out to be a fellow author in an anthology. Result: I met her husband, also a professor, who turned out to be an expert on native literatures, who put me in touch with someone in Anchorage crucial to my project (more on that anon). Other examples include people saying, at the end of the conversation, in response to a question I asked – you must talk to Professor X, and then taking me to Professor X’s office, where I learned the answer to a question that had been vexing me. A chance meeting with a friendly graduate student led me to a meeting with the geophysicist who works on cloud physics, from whom I learned a lot. But I also discovered later that the graduate student and I had a mutual friend on Facebook (where I am an occasional denizen).

All this made me feel somewhat more confident about visiting Barrow, where I had succeeded in hearing back from only one person, and that too, over a month ago.

Goodbye, Fairbanks! On to Barrow!

Leaving Fairbanks

Leaving Fairbanks

[1] The original paper, which needs to be better known, is by Meinshausen et al. in Nature, 2009. Below are some links, including one to the original paper, that helps set the numbers in context.
This one is for a general article in which the research paper is quoted:
Here’s the site of the Potsdam institute where the lead author is located:
and here is the paper:
A group of financial specialists that look at carbon in the market estimated, based on the paper above, that the 886Gt ‘allowable’ CO2 release in 2009 for a less than 25% probability of going above 2 C, had, by 2011, been partly used up. So in 2011 there was only 565 Gt of CO2 that could be released. By now it must be even smaller. The same group estimated the 2795 Gt CO2 release of current fossil fuel stocks.

This entry was posted in Climate change in the Arctic, Climate Change Policy, complex systems, indigenous peoples and climate change, STIRS Scholar program and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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