The New Arctic Frontier: Follow the Heat

By Tom Yulsman | January 21, 2014 3:49 am
Heat Sea Smoke Kirkenes

Fog running across the surface of Bøkfjorden near the shore of Kirkenes, Norway, is evidence of heat being released from the relatively warm, ice-free waters. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

As a frigid blast from the north takes aim on a large part of the United States — again — I’m sitting at the source: the Arctic — where I am paradoxically actually enjoying the benefits of some tropical heat.

You can see evidence of that heat in the mosaic of iPhone images above. But before I explain this particular polar paradox, I should say that as I’m writing this I’m in a darkened lecture hall at the Arctic University of Norway in the lovely, cosmopolitan city of Tromsø.

I’m here to cover the Arctic Frontiers conference. The name captures the gestalt: The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the mid-latitudes, which makes this region a new frontier, at least in the view of industry and government officials eager to take advantage of what they see as new opportunities brought about by the changing climate.

It is, in short, a place where one fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas is expected to reside; a region that is attracting more and more tourists eager to experience their own vision of the frontier; and an area that promises faster transport of resources and manufactured goods between Europe and Asia along the increasingly ice-free Northern Sea Route — the “Suez of the North,” as it has been dubbed.

Last weekend I visited a node in the growing network of human activity in the Arctic: Kirkenes — a town of about 3,500 people situated on a fjord that leads out to the Barents Sea. Close to the Russian border, and a magnet for Russians who travel here from Murmansk to buy consumer goods, it is about as far north and east as you can go in Norway.

When I was there, global warming wasn’t exactly obvious: Temperatures went as low as -20 degrees F (not counting the wind chill). Yet I couldn’t help but notice the native birch trees, encased in jackets of hoar frost. These trees grow at a latitude that’s roughly the same as that of Barrow, Alaska — a much colder place where treeless tundra prevails.

As with the rest of Norway, conditions here are considerably milder than the latitude would suggest. And the photo at the top of this post shows why.

Look for the thin fog rising from the dark waters. It is symptomatic of relatively warm water, which keeps the coast of Norway, including this part of the Barents Sea, mostly ice free.

Hurtigruten to Kirkenes heat

As seen from a Hurtigruten ferry, sea smoke rises from the Bøkfjorden near Kirkenes, a town in the far northeastern part of Norway. (Photograph: © Tom Yulsman)

As heat is released from the water into the frigid atmosphere, it warms the air just above it. When a light breeze mixes this warm, moisture-laden layer with frigid air directly above it, the temperature of the warmer air plunges below the dew point. And the result is steam fog, or “sea smoke.”

But where does this heat come from, how does it get here, and what links are there to global warming? The screenshot below answers two of those questions. Click on it to see the full visualization.

Gulf Stream heat

A screenshot of a visualization showing the Gulf Stream during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. (Click to watch.) It was produced based on computer modeling as well as satellite and in-situ data. (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

It depicts the Gulf Stream, which flows from the tropics, up along the eastern coast of the United States. As the visualization shows, it isn’t really a single current. Instead it consists of ocean eddies and other narrow current systems, which transport warm, relatively salty water to the north and east.

The system continues as the North Atlantic Current, and then the Norwegian Current. Here in Norway, the stream of warm water keeps the coastline ice free, all the way past the Arctic Circle and up into the Barents Sea. Among other things, this keeps the northern Russian port of Murmansk ice free even in winter (a factor that was key to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II; but I digress…)

Which brings me full circle back to the photo at the top of the post. The tropical heat being released into the atmosphere has always made this part of the world more habitable than it would otherwise be. And now, thanks to human activities, the heat is on even more. In fact, there is evidence that the northwest Barents Sea has warmed significantly in recent decades, thanks in part to warming of North Atlantic surface waters.

Just one more sign of change in the rapidly changing Arctic. In coming days, I’ll be writing more about this subject from the conference. I hope you’ll check back here for more.

  • Uncle Al

    My first employer after school was Occidental Petroleum. “one fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas” is written for investors not for net retained profits. From cheap, fast, and benign seismic pinging to exploratory drilling, every step of the way will be $billion-thwarted by hind gut fermenting Enviro-whiners. We are in recoverable petroleum up to our ears right now – every drop of it fuming unknown hazards. All unknown hazards must evaluated before politicians can be bought to start the process.

    Unleash Putin to conquer and then exploit. Subcontract technological applications to the companies who should be doing it anyway. Find a few really rancid managers – BP in the Gulf comes to mind – and publicly execute them naked by hanging (no drop, just hanging). The first step toward communication is shared language, e.g., traditionally French for diplomacy: “Marche ou crève.”

    • Tom Yulsman

      Uncle Al: I’m happy for you to contribute here, and to offer any perspective that you may have about issues. But if you want to continue contributing comments, you need to get serious. I’m not okay with having the comments section hijacked by nearly incoherent rants that are amusing only to you.

      • Uncle Al

        I’m the only fellow to isolate undegraded kerogen (~50 g) from oil shale during the 1970’s Colorado oil shale boom (or scandal – your taxpayer money). Oxy went to production in three years in the North Sea. Oxy pumps heavy oil. The finest engineers backed by the deepest pockets eat their donuts as hind gut fermenters wax rhapsodic over the infested Hell of ANWAR and its 12 – 20 elephants. The Santa Barbara channel is ready to drill and recover. “Natural” oil seeps are everywhere. Gov. Jerry Brown guts California sitting on an ocean of petroleum at $100/bbl.

        Putin did a remarkable job allowing the most feral criminal capitalist local swine a free hand to make Russia work. Another country did the same thing to the same end: Edison, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Vanderbuilt, Morgan, Astor, Duke, Schwab, Stanford. After they built America they were crushed by government, Economic cloudy days followed (bad luck).

        In 2008 and following, nearly a GDP of corruption and theft changed hands. As of today, how many of those principals, or even their underlings, are indicted, much less in prison? The Fed steals a $trillion/year from the Treasury, QE I, II, III. We do in Guantanamo. Raise the stakes on Wall Street. If a levied penalty is less than profit in hand, it’s not a deterrent – it’s a business plan.

        BP knew everything about that platform. It required multiple deliberate documented actions to progressively thwart successive layers of safety backups. Deep water Horizon was the Macondo blowout.

        Oopsie on the coincidence.

        • Highlowsel Smith

          No offense but who cares about your opinion?

          You, and I, don’t count in the processes you ascribe, in semi-articulate fashion, to a corrupt and collusive group of Elites. It’s more an aspect of history and human behavior that always concentrates Power. And everyone knows what Power does. In any case, you cannot effect it by your diatribe. I cannot effect it, either. As the totality of human history reveals it is what it is…and the next step in the endless (story) loop will be collapse…this time on a planetary scale rather than the past epocs of a more regional nature, the Mayans, Rapa Nui and Mesopotamian to name just a few. Ah humanity…we are Myopic on geologic timescales and even if we weren’t, we never learn from history.

          So it goes.

          American Net’Zen

  • vishvarnay

    “Making the same mistake over and over is a form of insanity” which is what drilling and refining crude is all about.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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