Mark Serreze: Becoming A Scientist

In honor of Earth Day, Princeton University Press will be highlighting the contributions that scientists make to our understanding of the world around us through a series of blog posts written by some of our notable Earth Science authors. Keep a look out for this series all month long.

Mark Serreze, investigating the pressure ridges in the Arctic.

What is it that leads someone to become a scientist? It varies, but from what I’ve seen, it’s often a combination of nature and nurture. Just as some people seem to have an inherent knack for writing making music, or cooking, I think that some of us are wired to become scientists. In turn, there is often someone we can look back to—parents or perhaps a teacher—that encouraged or inspired us to pursue a science career.

I had an interest in science from when I was very young, and I was always full of questions about the natural world. The first book I ever owned is “The Golden Book of Science” 1963 edition—featuring 1-2 page essays on everything from geology to insects to the weather. Each night, at my insistence, my mother would read one of them to me. To this day, I still own the book.

When I wasn’t reading, I could spend hours outside marveling at the organized industriousness of ants as they built their anthills, or looking at colorful rocks with a magnifying glass. I was enthralled with the burgeoning manned space flight program, and, sitting beside my mother and staring at the black TV while she ironed clothes, watched in awe at the Project Gemini rocket launches.   

As for the nurture part, I had an advantage in that both of my parents were chemists with Master’s degrees. This was at a time it was quite unusual for women to hold advanced degrees. They met in the laboratory. Mom was a whiz when it came to thermodynamics, and Dad apparently knew everything there was to know about acrylic plastics. Ours was indeed an odd household. While my siblings and I chafed under a rather strict Catholic upbringing, at the same time we were very much free-range kids, and scientific experimentation of all sorts was quite acceptable.  

At one point, after getting a chemistry set for Christmas, I thought I might become a chemist myself. These were not the boring, defanged chemistry sets of today – back then, they included chemicals that, when properly mixed, yielded career-inspiring reactions. I later got heavily into model rocketry, astronomy, and civil engineering, building small dams across the stream running past our house to improve the habitat for the frogs. Included among the more foolish (albeit highly educational) endeavors was a scientifically-based experiment on the feasibility of riding ice floes down the Kennebunk River. Then there was the time when an experiment in pyrotechnics gone wrong ended up with a frantic call to the fire department to douse a five-acre conflagration in the neighbor’s field.

Years before I ever got into college I knew I was going to be a research scientists of some type, for, through nature and nurture, the roots were already there. As I talk about in my book, Brave New Arctic, a number decisions and events came together – mixed with some blind, dumb luck – to eventually steer me towards a career in climate science. What I could never have foreseen is how, through these events and decisions, and then through 35 years of research, I’d find myself in the position to tell the story about the dramatic transformation of the North.

Climate scientists, like myself, have to deal with an added challenge that climate change is a highly polarized subject. There are the frequent questions from the media: Will there be a new record low in Arctic sea ice extent this year? Why does it matter? Why is the Arctic behaving so differently than the Antarctic? It can be overwhelming at times. Then there are the emails, phone calls and tweets from those who simply want to rant. While I get a lot of emails from people fully on board with the reality that humans are changing the climate and want to get straight answers about something they’ve heard or read about, I also have a growing folder in my inbox labeled “Hate Mail”. Some very unflattering things have been said about me on social media and across the web. I’ve had to grow a thick skin.  

Making a career as a research scientist is not for everyone. Science is not the sort of thing that is easy to put aside at the end of the day. It gnaws at you. The hours are long, and seldom lead to monetary riches. It can also be a frustrating occupation, such as when realizing that, after months of research pursuing a lead, you’ve hit a dead end.

We chose to be scientists because it’s what we love to do. We live for those “aha” moments when the hard work pays off, and we discover something new that advances our understanding.

In writing this book I was forced to dig deeply to understand my own evolution as a scientist, and to document insights from other scientists who, like me, were there at the beginning when the Arctic still looked like the Arctic of old. It’s been an adventure, and when I someday retire (which is a very hard thing for scientists to do,) I hope to be able to look back and say that that this book opened some eyes, and inspired others to follow their own path to becoming a scientist.

 

Mark 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.

Mark C. Serreze: Approaching the March Sea Ice Maximum

Author Mark C. Serreze standing next to a snow machine in the Arctic.

The floating sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean waxes and wanes with the seasons. The maximum extent typically occurs around the second week of March, at which time ice has historically covered an area a bit less than twice the size of the contiguous United States. The term “Arctic sea ice extent” is actually a bit of a misnomer, for at or near the seasonal maximum, sea ice is found well south of the Arctic Circle, covering all of Hudson Bay and parts of the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  With the start of spring, the ice cover begins to melt.  Initially, the growing warmth of spring slowly nibbles away at the southern edges of the ice pack.  The pace of melt picks up in May and June, and then gets underway in earnest in July.  As the sun gets lower in the sky in August, the melt slows.  The seasonal minimum in ice extent usually occurs in mid-September – at that time, the ice covers less than half of what it did in March, and ice is restricted to the Arctic Ocean proper.  As the sun then sets over the Arctic Ocean, the ice cover begins to grow again, renewing the cycle that has been going on for millions of years. 

But things are changing fast.  Earth observation satellites have been recording changes in Arctic sea ice extent since 1979.  These records show that sea ice extent is declining in all months, with the largest change in September, at the end of the melt season.  The downward trend for September is a whopping 13% per decade. The trends are by no means smooth – there are big ups and downs from month to month and year to year, but the pattern is clear. 

Scientists have long been at work to determine what sea ice conditions were like before the satellite era.  Data from shore observations, ship and aircraft reports, and before aviation, sources like logbook entries from whaling ships, extend the record back to 1850.  Paleoclimate reconstructions bring the record back a thousand years before today.  There is no evidence in any of these records for sea ice trends like we’ve seen over the past 40 years.  They are unprecedented.  The conclusion is inescapable – the Arctic Ocean is quickly losing its floating sea ice cover.  The summer ice cover may be gone 30 or 40 years from now.

At the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Center (NSIDC), where I’ve been the director since 2009, we track the Arctic sea ice cover on a daily basis.  Every August, we start to brace ourselves for the inevitable tidal wave of questions from the media and interested public about what September will bring.  Questions like: Will there be a new record low in sea ice extent this year?  When will the Arctic completely lose its summer sea ice cover?  What will this mean for the rest of the planet?  We also get our share of flak from the skeptics, eager to tell us that this is all some sort of natural climate cycle, or that nothing is happening at all; we’re making it up and fudging the records.  We shrug this off and diligently continue processing the satellite data and report on what is happening. The data does not lie.

Until a few years ago, the March sea ice maximum went relatively unnoticed.  By comparison to September, the changes being seen in winter weren’t especially spectacular, and for good reason – even in a warming Arctic, it still gets cold and dark in winter and sea ice forms and covers a big area.  The ice that grows in autumn and winter is thinner than it used to be, but to the satellite sensors that we use to determine ice extent, thin ice looks pretty much the same as thick ice.

Things changed in 2015, when sea ice extent at the March maximum set a new record low.  Then the winter of 2015-2016 saw a mind-boggling heat wave over the Arctic Ocean.   At the end of December 2015, there was a brief period when the surface temperature at the North Pole rose to the melting point. In all my years of studying the Arctic, I’d never seen anything like it. It stayed warm and on March 24, when Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal maximum extent, it had bested the low mark set in 2015.  The winter of 2016/2017 was in many respects a repeat.   At the winter solstice on Dec. 22, temperatures near the North Pole were up 20 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) above average.  When March 2017 rolled around, another new record low in extent had been set. The Arctic has gone crazy.

We’re still coming to grips with understanding these records lows in the winter ice cover. While the heat waves are clearly related to weather patterns bringing in warm air from the south, what’s the cause of these patterns?  While more ocean heat seems to be coming into the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific through the Bering Strait, why is this happening?  The inflow of ocean heat from the Atlantic has also changed in puzzling ways that inhibit winter ice formation in places like the Barents Sea.  

In short, while we know a great deal about what is happening to the Arctic and where it is headed, the emerging Brave New Arctic continues to challenge us.  Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised – after all, scientists have long known that, as the climate warms, the biggest changes would be seen the Arctic. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be amazed.

 

Mark C. Serreze is 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 lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Bird Fact Friday – the Black Scoter

Adapted from pages 84-85 of Wildlife of the Arctic:

Formerly considered conspecific with the Common Scoter, the American Ornithologists’ Union divided the two into separate species on the basis of the drake’s bill pattern and shape, and also on differences in the mating calls (each produces a single note, that of the Black Scoter being longer). The plumage of male Black Scoters is essentially identical to that of male Commons, but the bill differs markedly. The base protuberance of breeding adults is entirely yellow-orange and is much less knob-like, being significantly flatter. The coloration of the remaining bill is similar in extent. The bill of Black Scoters (male and female) is slightly more hooked than that of Common Scoters. Female plumage is essentially identical to that of female Common Scoters.

A male Black Scoter (Melanitta americana). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

Black Scoters breed in Asiatic Russia east of the Lena delta (but not to the north coast) and on Kamchatka. They also breed in west and south Alaska, and in southern Quebec and Labrador. Both species are found in the lower Lena valley but there appears to be no overlap of ranges and no evidence of hybridisation. In winter the birds move to the Bering Sea and coasts of Japan. According to the IUCN, their status is nearly threatened, due to a decline in their population. 

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

 

Bird Fact Friday: the Red-necked Grebe

Adapted from pages 42-43 of Wildlife of the Arctic

Though superficially similar to divers, grebes have some distinctly different characteristics, suggesting a very different evolutionary path.

Grebes are poor fliers in comparison to divers, the wings beating so fast the birds appear panic-stricken. As a a consequence, they are rarely seen in flight at their breeding territories. Nevertheless, the two Arctic breeding grebes are migratory, moving to southern coastal waters in winter. On migration they frequently fly at night. This has led to instances where in the early morning light, exhausted birds have mistaken wet roads for streams and landed. THey are then stranded, being unable to take off from the land.

A Red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

The Red-necked Grebe is less handsome than their horned cousins, but attractive birds with black crowns, white or pale grey faces and a red neck in breeding plumage. The upperparts are grey-brown, while the underparts are paler, and both sexes are similar. In winter the birds lose the bright colouration, being dull brown and white. They are highly territorial and very aggressive during the breeding season. Red-necked Grebes have even been known to kill intruding ducks. If several chicks hatch, the parents may split the brood when carrying them around.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Bird Fact Friday – the Red-throated Diver

For the next month, Bird Fact Friday will be showcasing passages and photographs from Wildlife of the Arctic, a forthcoming, pocket-sized photographic field guide to Arctic birds, mammals, and other wildlife. 

Adapted from pages 36 and 37 of the text:

A red-throated diver (Gavia stellata). Photo credit: Richard Sale & Per Michelsen.

With their delicately patterned plumage – seemingly the work of a talented painter rather than comprising individual feathers – the divers are among the most attractive of all northern birds.

The smallest of the divers and, with a red throat that develops for the breeding season, one of the most attractive. The head and remainder of the neck are pale grey. The upperparts lack the chequer-boarding of the larger divers, being grey-brown with white speckling. In winter the grey neck and red throat are lost, the back and upper wings being covered in a myriad of white speckles: looking like the Milky Way, these spots explain the Latin name – stellata – stars. The calls of the Red are also distinct from the voices of the other divers, being more waterfowl-like: in the UK’s Shetland Islands the calls led to the bird being named the ‘Rain Goose’, though to be fair, given the rainfall of northern Britain most birds could be associated with its arrival. Being smaller, Red-throated Diver can nest on smaller lakes, though this often means that the local food supply is inadequate for chick-rearing, the birds having to make a large number of flights to gather food. 

Circumpolar breeders, breeding on all the Arctic islands of Canada and Russia, though apparently absent from the New Siberian Islands. In winter the birds are seen in the North Atlantic, North Sea, Bering Sea and North Pacific.

Wildlife of the Arctic
By Richard Sale & Per Michelsen

Wildlife of the Arctic is an accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to the birds, land and sea mammals, and plants and lichens of the northern polar region–including Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Russia. Written and illustrated by naturalists with extensive Arctic experience, this handy book features detailed facing-page descriptions of each species, including information about identification, range, distribution, and breeding and wintering grounds. A substantial introduction explains the area covered, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming. This portable, user-friendly guide is the perfect companion for birders, ecotourists, and cruise-line passengers visiting the Arctic Circle and other areas of the far north.

  • An accessible and richly illustrated pocket-sized photographic field guide to Artic wildlife
  • Features more than 800 color photos illustrating more than 250 bird species, 60 land mammals, and 30 seals and whales
  • Includes extensive facing-page species descriptions and identification information
  • Provides an overview of the Arctic region, with information on the poles, geology, snow and ice, auroras, and the influence of global warming
  • Explores each family of birds and mammals, and has sections covering fish, insects, plants, and lichens

Browse Our Earth Science 2018 Catalog

Our new Earth Science 2018 catalog ranges from the northernmost reaches of the globe to the unfathomable depths of its oceans, while also covering essential techniques and concepts in the fields of complexity and predictive ecology. 

If you will be attending the American Geophysical Union 2017 meeting in New Orleans this weekend, please stop by booth 730, where you can pick up a copy of the catalog in person and see our full range of books in Earth Science.

In the forthcoming Brave New Arctic, Mark Serreze details the history and the science of the precipitous warming of the Arctic, and its potentially devastating consequences for the planet as a whole. Drawing on his own work, as well as that of pioneering climate scientists, Brave New Arctic is a fascinating account of the not-so-frozen North. 

Brave New Arctic, by Mark Serreze

Eelco Rohling’s The Oceans traces the history of the planet’s oceans from the Earth’s formation to the present day, demonstrating the critical role they play in the Earth’s climate system. Concise but comprehensive, The Oceans is an essential introduction to paleoceanography, from one of AGU’s newest fellows.  

The Oceans, by Eelco Rohling

Drawing on simple computational models, Natural Complexity by Paul Charbonneau analyzes the emergence of complex behaviors and structure in natural phenomena from forest fires to epidemic diseases. Including complete source code in Python, Natural Complexity is a straightforward introduction to complexity in all its forms.

Natural Complexity, by Paul Charbonneau

What is involved in making ecology a more predictive science? In Ecological Forecasting, Michael Dietze covers the cutting-edge techniques that are driving modern ecology, complete with case studies and hands-on examples using R.

Ecological Forecasting, by Michael C. Dietze