A Brief History Of Arctic Warming
    By Patrick Lockerby | September 12th 2011 06:06 PM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    A Brief History of Arctic Warming

    Prior to the golden age of global exploration, during which America was first settled, little was know about the Arctic regions or even about climate science in general.  Some time between 1578 and 1584, George Best described the planet's climate zones and described how the accumulated heat input to the Arctic exceeds that of the tropics during Arctic summer.  He also described how the heat from the Sun is 'reflected'* by the ground and the atmosphere.  In his journals recording the three Frobisher expeditions he mentions the local, seasonal and annual variability of the ice.  During the three expeditions the ships were not able to penetrate very far north of Frobisher Bay.   That bay, named for Sir Martin Frobisher, leader of the three expeditions of which George Best wrote, was discovered in 1576, during the first expedition.
    [*]  The Sun's heat is, when absorbed, re-radiated at a different wavelength, but Best appears to have been the first person to describe anything like the process now known.)

    Exploring the Western Arctic

    In 1585, John Davis became the first European to enter what is now called Baffin Bay.  During 1616, William Baffin explored the area extensively and the Bay was later named in his honor.  However, until 1818, when John Ross rediscovered the bay, its existence was widely doubted.  The reason for that doubt is easy to understand: from 1616 to 1818 every attempt to explore far enough north to confirm the existence of the bay was defeated by a vast expanse of coast-to-coast ice.

    In this chart, adapted from a Wikimedia Commons image, the dark blue area represents an area which was virtually impenetrable to explorers from 1617 through 1817.

    Ever since the rediscovery of Baffin Bay in 1818 there has been a clear trend observable in the long term.  Although in some years the ice 'recovered' enough to be a great hindrance to exploration, the ice in Baffin Bay became slowly and inexorably less and less of a hindrance to navigation.  Almost year on year a new 'furthest north' discovery of a bay, fjord or glacier was recorded.  By the middle of the 19th century most of the coasts around Baffin Bay had been charted, also much of the Canadian Archipelago.  The lost Franklin Expedition was last seen August 1845 in the northern part of Baffin Bay waiting for the ice conditions to improve so as to permit entry into Lancaster Sound, from where further explorations were planned.

    During the searches for the lost Franklin Expedition, explorers were able to penetrate ever further into the Canadian Archipelago from the south in Baffin Bay and from the north and west via Alaska.  At no time was there ever continuous open water through the North West Passages.  Within the archipelago ice conditions were so bad that quite a few of the searching ships had to be abandoned.

    Records from sealing, whaling, fishing and exploration voyages, and from Arctic and sub-Arctic communities, show that ice conditions were quite variable around the Arctic.  Despite that variability, the historical records demonstrate that every attempt to complete a voyage between the Atlantic and the Pacific by any route ended in failure until the Vega Expedition of 1878 to 1879, below.  Indeed, the records show a great loss of ships and men over the centuries of Arctic exploration.  The most notable disasters were the Franklin Expedition and the Jeanette Expedition, but there were many other less widely known losses.

    Exploring the Eastern Arctic

    While some explorers were attempting to find a North West Passage, others were seeking a route by way of Scandinavia and Russia.  Although the route was explored piecemeal and proven to exist, for a very long time it was assumed to be impassable.  Even those stretches of the route which were considered navigable were subject to much variability.  For example, from 1648 until about 1879 the route from Kolyma to the Bering Strait, which was previously navigable for at least part of the year, was rendered completely impassable by heavy ice.  It is interesting to note that this is period of over 200 years is offset by about 30 years from the 200 year period during which Baffin Bay was choked, indicating that the increase of ice in Baffin Bay was not from a purely local cause.

    The first ship to complete a journey through the Arctic from the Atlantic side to the Pacific was the Vega.  Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld's Vega Expedition departed Sweden in June 1878.  The ship was beset in ice from September 1878 until July 1879 only two days sailing from Bering Strait.  On sailing through the strait once free of the ice she completed her journey.

    S.S. Vega

    For military or commercial purposes, a route is completely useless if ships may be beset in ice for long periods.  There were sound commercial reasons, as well as military ones, for wanting a more permanent Northern Sea Route for Russian shipping.  Since Mother Nature declined to provide an open route, human ingenuity would fill the need.  And so began the era of Arctic icebreakers.

    The Yermak was launched in 1898.  She was by no means the world's first icebreaker, but she was the world's first ice breaker to be built specifically for duty in the Arctic seas.  The Yermak employed the technique, invented by an American, of using a bow propeller to force water under the ice in order to disperse it.  The ship had trim tanks which could be used to rock the ship fore and aft or side to side in order to grind and break the ice: she could shake loose from the grip of ice if need be.  The bow was shaped to ride up over the ice, and the bows could be heated by hot water from the boiler's steam condenser to keep ice from sticking to the plating.

    The icebreaker Yermak, digitally processed image from a 1904 postcard

    Vice Admiral Stepan Makaroff, eminent oceanographer and an early proponent of the international exchange of oceanographic data, was responsible for getting the Yermak built.  His proposal to use icebreakers to precede merchant ships through the North East passage, or Northern Sea Route, was accepted in high government circles.  The Yermak was the prototype which, if successful, would lead to more icebreakers being built.  It was, as history shows, very successful indeed.  The ship coped with the ice conditions in the way described by Makaroff in news reports and in scientific papers such as the one read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which a small extract is quoted below.
    The Arctic Sea in summer is certainly full of ice, but this ice is in the shape of islands, divided by the canals which are mostly filled with broken ice. The islands are of different sizes, some being as much as five miles in diameter ; the others are smaller, and the great majority of them do not exceed hundreds of feet. Sometimes these islands are pressed against each other, and there may be days during which it is difficult to proceed, but with a change of weather and current the ice islands may become separated from each other so as to render a passage possible. I do not think that going with the ice-breaker into the Polar Region it would be necessary to keep a straight course and cut the ice ; I believe that the ship should go in a " zig-zag " line, shaping her course between ice-floes. In some cases it will be necessary to apply the full power, but in other places the ship will proceed easily.

    I spoke on this subject with Captain Sverdrup of the " Fram " and Dr Nansen. Captain Sverdrup is entirely of my opinion, but Dr Nansen did not wish to express his views ; he only said that he wished me success, and he would be the first to congratulate me upon it.

    The near future will show whether my proposition and calculations are sound or not.

    Vice-Admiral S. Makaroff, Imperial Russian Navy,
    On some Oceanographic Problems, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Vol. XXII
    (Read February 9, 1899.)
    The undeniable success of the Yermak led to the building of other icebreakers and the opening of the Northern Route to commercial shipping.  In the first half of the 20th century, icebreakers shepherded many hundreds of ships through the Arctic.  They also took part in many rescues, notably in the heavy ice years of the 1930s.  Most famously, icebreakers rescued the scientists who had manned the world's first weather station on an ice floe: North Pole 1.

    Even while the ice in the Eastern areas was compact enough to make the use of icebreakers essential, the variability in the Western areas permitted ships to penetrate ever further into unexplored regions.  The technique used was to make use of a gap in the ice and then wait, perhaps until the next year, for a new gap to allow further progress.  It was by this means that the Gjoa became the first ship ever to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the North West Passage.  The ship took the three years 1903 to 1906 along the the Southerly route to complete the passage.  Until the St. Roche's famous voyages starting in 1940, no other ship completed that passage.

    In the early years of the 20th century, even during the times of the worst ice conditions reported in the Siberian and Alaskan Arctic regions, the East coast of Greenland was explored further north than ever before due to the occasional opening of the pack south of Fram Strait.  It should be noted that in the Arctic, the terms 'opening of the pack' and 'open water' cover a vast range of meanings.  For example, when the scientists from North Pole 1 were rescued off Greenland in 1938 the icebreakers encountered much 'open water' along their journeys, but for some time after finding the scientists they could not get nearer than about a mile from the disintegrating ice floe.

    Current Arctic conditions

    From the reopening of access to Baffin Bay in 1818 and the reopening of the sea route from Kolyma to Bering Strait around 1879, there has been a clear and almost continual change in the behaviour of Arctic ice.  The rate of that change has accelerated and appears to be accelerating more.  Currently, September 2011, ice extent, volume and area are being reported by various observers as being equal to or below the previous 2007 record.  (Final figures are yet to be published at the time of writing.)  Baffin Bay, which for 200 years after its first discovery was choked with ice from shore to shore and completely inaccessible, is now virtually ice free by the end of every summer.

    The way in which the Sun warms the Earth; the way in which the atmosphere modifies extremes of temperature; the ways in which land, sea, mountains etc. modify climates; the circulation of air and sea: all these are demonstrations of the laws of physics.  Application of the laws of physics to the global environment causes the Arctic, in a warming world, to warm first and fastest.  The Arctic has indisputably warmed, as proven by many thousands of historical records; as proven by satellite observations and images; as proven by current eye-witness reports.

    Some very prominent public figures, journalists and bloggers are still claiming that the Arctic isn't warming, that global warming stopped in some year or other, or that global warming is a hoax.  Hoax?  If global warming is a hoax then it is the cleverest hoax in the whole of human history.  Cleverest because the climate science data which proves global warming was being accumulated even before the U.S.A. existed!

    If global warming is a hoax then the historical records of Arctic warming must all have been faked by a global conspiracy involving just about every scientist and sailor from just about every country in the world.  It must also be the case that if any old person in any country claims to have witnessed climate change over their lifetime then they must be a liar and a part of the conspiracy.  In fact, the total amount of evidence of global warming and its effects is so great that, if it is bogus, then more than 50% of the world's most educated people must be conspiring to fool everybody else.


    The Arctic is sending us a very clear signal that the global climate system is changing.

    Insurance companies in most countries are heeding that signal.

    The military organisations in many countries are heeding that signal.

    The people responsible for coastal protection are heeding that signal.

    Why do some people not want you to heed the signal?

    Are you not curious about their motives?


    Nice work Patrick.
    I've always been bemused by people who think that there are 'no records' about conditions in polar regions before satellites. How on earth do they think we managed to knock off the whales? Sailors just roamed around? No. They mapped the areas where resources were/not abundant and went flat out until the money stopped flowing in.

    And empire-minded governments demanded evidence of which regions were or weren't worth claiming or colonising or exploiting to grab financial, military or expansionist advantage. Do people seriously think that the Russians/Brits/Dutch wouldn't have started and expanded naval and military bases around the Arctic if they'd had half a chance? Even for limited time periods? They didn't because they had maps and logs and reports and lost expeditions showing that the place was impossible.

    Until recently.

    adelady: thanks for the compliment and your astute observations.  Before Fridtjof Nansen planned his Fram expedition he researched everything he could find about the Arctic.  He later published the results of his historical researches as In Northern Mists.  That is only two volumes.  All existing archived Arctic data before even the Fram expedition would likely fill a library the size of Britain's Houses of Parliament.  There are many books and papers in Russian, to name but one language, which have never been translated into English.  No data before satellite records?  Not hardly!
    I enjoyed the research and the work put into them. The real question in regards to global temperatures is not whether temperatures and climate change (your data shows that conclusively) but if the latest climatic variations are due primarily to minor increases in a weak greenhouse gas or are they just the general climatic fluctuations normal to life on planer earth (possibly even solar driven). I was inclined to believe the first until the tsunami of propaganda posing as science started. Gore's inconvenient truth being the first that made me start to question the conclusions. As someone versed in science you know any research project that seeks to prove a theory does so by trying to disprove it. If it stands to rigorous examination then and only then it is accepted. This is true for all of science except man made global warming. Any attempt to apply this maxim to it is met with scorn. To me, a person educated in science, this is unacceptable. If the position it too weak to be confronted that in itself is strong evidence it is too weak to be taken seriously. As the author of the book cool it points out (a believer in man made global warming) the tendencies to massage data and hold up bad science to support the man made global warming position has hurt the cause immensely. Fortunately I do not see that here and again thanks for the article.

    Hi Patrick,

    I followed your link from Neven's place and was rewarded with this concise and enjoyable potted history.

    You might be slightly amused by a surreal conversation pertaining to the North West Passage that I had some months ago in my local pub.

    I was getting harangued with the usual twaddle about current Arctic ice loss being balanced by gains in the Antarctic, and how it was just a product of natural cycles. What did momentarily bemuse me however was being confronted with the claim that the NWP had first been navigated by Frobisher in the 15th Century.

    Once I had stopped laughing, I suggested that this would be enormously surprising to at least 4 entirely disparate groups of people, and then proceeded to enumerate these as follows...

    1 The entire population of Norway (possibly all of Scandinavia in fact), as these would learn of Roald Amundsen's epic journey in Gjoa from an early age

    2 Everyone with an interest in Polar exploration

    3 Everyone with an interest in Elizabethan history

    4 Theoretical Physicists. Why? Well since Frobisher was born in the 16th Century, his ship must have been fitted with some seriously advanced engines to enable the purported NWP traverse to occur during the previous century.

    Echoing the comments from Adelady, when faced with the argument that "satellite data only goes back to 1979" (or "only goes back 30 years" for the mathematically challenged) I tend to point them in the direction of the ESMR satellite data (available from the NSIDC) which goes back to 1972, or the Walsh & Chapman dataset (from the University of Illinois) which stretches back to 1870.

    Of course, that just leads to objections along the lines of "it's a different measuring system - therefore the results are incompatible". That basically means all long term scientific measurements are futile, as advances in mensuration technology invalidates all previous work!!!!!

    Anyway Patrick, everything you said must be wrong, as I recently read a comment on a Daily Telegraph blog stating that one of the Ptolemys had a map showing that the NWP was open about 1900 years ago. See, I bet you didn't know that, did you? (I think it was next to the bit that said "here be Dragons" - in Greek of course.)

    Bill: thanks for the compliment and the amusing anecdotes.

    I'll have to have a fresh look at the Ptolemy maps.  Through rose-tinted spectacles, naturally. :-)

    I see your 1972 ESMR and raise you 1964 Nimbus.  To the best of my knowledge, that was the first satellite used to observe the Arctic ice.  The observations were validated against ground observations, as described in Arctic, Vol 18 No 4 1965.

    Polar Exploration with Nimbus Meteorological Satellite

    The Popham paper you linked mentions ice measurements by weather aircraft being limited, must (er ..might) still be some data somewhere.

    PS Captcha ici et suc and

    So why did Baffin Island become accessible in 1818? was that due to CO2 and fossil fuels too?

    Baffin Island has some European artefacts from Viking or a few centuries before them. So it was warmer before now and your conclusion is sophism.

    Now there is a classic response.

    So why did Baffin Island become accessible in 1818? was that due to CO2 and fossil fuels too?

    It is highly probable.  Quite apart from CO2, coal is a notorious source of soot.  Soot has been found in ice cores dating back even before the Elizabethan era.

    Even before the Elizabethan era, Newcastle was exporting coal.  The town of Newcastle is so notoriously connected with coal mining that the term 'taking coals to Newcastle' became a term for any futile action.

    One of the primary causes of the English Civil War was the arbitrary way in which Charles 1st imposed taxes.  One of those taxes was a coal tax.  One of the key towns seized by the Royalists at the start of the war was Newcastle.  The Parliamentarian blockade of 1644 left most of London without coal in winter.  Even way back then, fossil fuel was a strategic resource.

    The industrial revolution began in the early 1700s when steam power was used to pump water out of mines.  The coal to power the engines came from already long-established mines.  The use of steam power both required more coal and led to the production of more coal.

    Steam power was next adapted for use in ships.

    By 1818 the global consumption of coal had already been climbing rapidly.  Soot is a powerful agent in the melting of ice, so yes: even before the rise of the railways, enough coal was being burned globally to have an effect on the Arctic ice.

    Baffin Island has some European artefacts from Viking or a few centuries before them.

    In a very remote desert area I once found a cluster of empty Coke cans.  Was this proof that there was once a city there - or did some unthinking visitors dump their garbage in a formerly pristine environment?

    Viking artifacts found far north of Viking settlements could be trade goods or could be relics of lost explorers.  Much more evidence would be needed to show that people actually settled at the locations where the artifacts were found before we can even consider the possibility that those locations were inhabited - because warmer - in former times.

    I posted this on your Sept link, But maybe it's better here.
    Never is a long time.
    Mi Cro: I responded over at the September ice article, where I have linked to the paper which was (almost) cited in that old news release.  Link to my comment.
    Mi Cro

    You guys are so predictable, you get it on the tom toms.

    Take a look without your blinders and note also that a cutoff of 2003 ill serves the current state of knowledge.
    (page 8)

    Even without the more recent data, the trend is clear.