The Arctic in the Age of Trump

By Tom Yulsman | January 23, 2017 11:54 am

“I am fearful this will affect the Arctic in ways that we have not seen yet” — Margot Wallström, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden


Donald J. Trump walks out of the U.S. Capitol to be sworn in as America’s 45th President. (Source: White House Facebook page)

Note: I’ve written this from Tromsø, Norway, where I’m covering the Arctic Frontiers conference. A version of this commentary is also scheduled to be published in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet. 

On January 18, U.S. climate-monitoring agencies confirmed that 2016 was the warmest year in records dating back to 1880. And that made it a climatic trifecta:


In this map of temperature anomalies across the globe in 2016, the Arctic stands out as being the most unusually warm region on Earth during the year. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

“Remarkably, this is the third consecutive year a new global annual temperature record has been set,” the analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated.

Just two days later, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. As he placed his hand on a bible for the swearing-in ceremony, the temperature in Washington, D.C. hovered at 48 degrees. That made it the 4th warmest January inauguration ever.

At the same time that the presidency was changing hands, so was the White House website. A moment before that electronic transition, the Obama White House website still featured volumes of information on climate change. But then in an instant, it was all gone — except for this short policy statement from the new Trump administration:

“For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan…”

To be fair, it must be said that the Trump team did not have much time to create new content for the site. Even so, they did manage to promote First Lady Melania Trump’s modeling career and line of jewelry at QVC — on the new White House website. (After that was publicized by the Washington Post, team Trump also managed to find the time to update the website by removing mention of QVC.)

The one small statement about climate change on the new site did not give much reassurance to those hoping that Trump would have second thoughts about his pledge to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Just as unsettling was the “America First Energy Plan” unveiled on the website. In it, Trump promises that he will vigorously pursue policies to accelerate production of coal, oil, and gas.

Just in case you were wondering, there was not one mention of renewable energy.

All of this played out soon after I arrived in Tromsø to cover the Arctic Frontiers conference, which takes place between Jan. 22 and 27. The theme this year, appropriately enough, is “White Space — Blue Future.” I take that to mean something like, “Say goodbye to vast expanses of white sea ice and hello to open water.”

Given what happened to Arctic sea ice in 2016, that somewhat cynical way of putting it may not be wholly inappropriate. As the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center recently reported: “Throughout the year, a wave of new record lows were set for both daily and monthly extent.” In 2016 alone, record low ice extents were set in January, February, April, May, June, October, and November. And this continues a long-term trend.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” notes Petteri Talaas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization. He is referring to a growing body of science suggesting that shrinking of Arctic sea ice is tied to disruption of normal winter weather patterns in large parts of the Northern Hemisphere.


But there’s also the “blue future” part of the Arctic Frontiers conference theme. That refers to tantalizing opportunities opened by shrinking ice. Not the least of these is the potential for expansion of resource extraction. And that, of course, promises a rising of many nations’ economic boats. (Not to mention boats generally, thanks to rising sea level.)

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the area north of the Arctic Circle holds 90 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil. Add to that an estimated 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The blue future theme also promises other kinds of rising economic activity, including, of course, increases in shipping, fisheries and tourism.

The lovely Arctic city of Tromsø is quite familiar with the phenomenon of a rising economic tide. Last year, northern Norwegian winter tourism increased by 250 percent in the ten years between 2005 and 2015. This has been driven to a large extent by the desire of tourists to see the Northern Lights. But the Arctic has also been in the news quite frequently in recent years, in part because it has been warming at two to three times the rate of other parts of the world. And with the spotlight shining on the region so intensely, tourists must be noticing.

That surely was the case with the 1,070 passengers who sailed aboard the Crystal Serenity last summer between Seward, Alaska and New York City. On it’s journey, it became the largest cruise ship ever to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage. The nine-deck, 68,000-ton vessel was able to thread its way through narrow, shallow channels, thanks in no small measure to an almost total lack of sea ice.

Of course the conditions were quite different for Roald Amundsen and the crew of his little boat Gjoa in 1905. On their historic journey through the Northwest Passage, they spent two weeks adrift in the Simpson Strait. It was a testament to Amundsen’s skill, tenacity, and to some luck too, that they avoided being crushed by more copious polar ice.

As 2017 unfolds, we are now beginning to ply the far more treacherous waters of the age of Trump. Where might we wind up?

“I am fearful this will affect the Arctic in ways that we have not seen yet,” said Margot Wallström, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden at the opening session of the Arctic Frontiers conference today.

But it must be said that even if President Trump did an about face and devoted himself to taming climate change as strenuously as Obama did, the Arctic would continue to warm anyway. That’s because the greenhouse gases we’ve already added to the atmosphere will continue to warm the climate for many decades to come. And that requires us to think about adapting to change, not just limiting it.

For Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the inevitable changes themselves are not the biggest worry. “There always is change,” he says. “It is the rapidity of the change that is of concern.” That makes adapting even more challenging.

The age of Trump “is a dangerous time,” he continues. “That’s because at the very time that the Arctic, and the climate overall, is rapidly changing, we have an administration that is wanting to stick its head in the sand. This couldn’t have come at a worst time.”

Too bad the content creators for the new White House website haven’t gotten that message.

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  • cgs

    What do you mean that 2016 was the warmest year of the instrumental record, or that record lows in Arctic sea ice were set at a rapid pace??

    The “alternate facts” tell a different story…. 😉

  • Mike Richardson

    No, the signs from the Trump White House so far are not reassuring. Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State, and climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA ( hardly what you would consider an environmental advocate, right?) further demonstrate the new administration ‘s hostility to climate science. Perhaps we’ll get an official Orwellian pronouncement regarding “alternative” science acceptable to Trump and his cabinet of reality denying oligarchs. This just puts more emphasis on the need for action at the state and grassroots level. Those concerned with the consequences of climate change may no longer have an ally in the White House, but as this past weekend has demonstrated, the people of this country can still make their voices heard.

  • OWilson

    There have been at least 6 regular discernible Ice Ages in the Earth’s history, with intervening warming periods.

    These naturally occurring phenomena have little to do with politicians.

    Nor a particular individual’s philosophy.

    We should be most careful not to attribute blame for the Earth’s average temperature at any given time, to transient political parties. It makes even less sense to blame an individual politician.

    Otherwise one would be quite correct to attribute the most recent record “rapid” global warming and the most recent record “rapid” loss of polar ice in the Earth’s Entire History, to one Barack Hossein Obama :)

    I’m not a Barack fan, but that would not be fair.

    But, there seems to be a Trump Derangement Syndrome in the air, weirdly reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials. Unholy and irrational fear has gripped a small, but vocal, percentage of the population.

    What say we give him a at least a week or two before torching him?

    Are they scared he will once again, as usual, succeed?

    (Disclaimer. I’m Canadian and didn’t vote for him!)

  • Matt_Grey

    Trying to blame Trump for “climate change”? You guys are hilarious. Take an extended vacation from the “Trump is literally Hitler” hysteria for a while and when you’ve calmed down and can think like a rational adult (again) you can come back and engage with those with a firmer grip on reality.

    • OWilson

      Blame is the name of their game!

      Everything bad in their pathetic lives is always someone else’s fault.

      A sad way to bring up a child.

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      • Tom Yulsman

        You are skating on very thin ice here Mr. Wilson.

        • OWilson

          Your warning is noted!

          My comments were not direct at you personally, rather the gentleman you quoted. “the age of Trump is a dangerous time”.

          A political statement rather than a scientific one.

          Thank you!

          • Tom Yulsman

            It is challenging to keep on top of moderation here. So if it seemed like I singled you out, it was not intended. To the extent I can, I really want to keep things civil. I am definitely not succeeding… Anyway, that is where I am coming from. Thanks for helping.

          • OWilson

            I for one, pledge to keep my comments civilized to continue the privilege of having my comments printed in your blog.

            (some us are posting on other sites, that allow free for all, off topic, one liner insulting trolling, in really poor taste, and I must confess to having fun there with them myself. Those people and those attitudes too frequently cross over to places like here, which I agree is totally inappropriate)

            On another note I was hoping for a little more reporting on your trip and the events in Tromso.

            And, not just the local beer!


          • Tom Yulsman

            It’s coming. I actually have a ‘day’ job…

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Grey, please show me where in the article I blamed Trump for climate change. While you are at it, show me where I said anything about Hitler. If you could also show me where my article failed to be rational, how I did not behave like an adult, and where I lost a grip on reality, I would be grateful for your help.

      In reality, of course, your rant appears to be a classic example of psychological projection. My advice: Look in the mirror before you start accusing people of these kinds of things.

    • nosmokewithout

      You must have read a different article. No one is blaming Trump for the warming. Try read the article again, without your pre-conceptions.

  • ToddM

    The lies continue. The satellite record says otherwise. It has the distinction of having no heat island effect and the only data set that is unsmoothed and unadjusted. Solar science tells us global cooling has begun and we will soon miss the good old days of warmth, food and prosperity. Here is the record coming off a 30 year cooldown in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

    • cgs

      If one wants to know if the Earth is actually warming or not, neither surface nor satellite measures of temperature provide the best measure.

      The best measure is ocean heat content. Roger Pielke Sr., a well published, skeptic scientist states it best here:

      See paragraphs 6 and 7. And plots of ocean heat content show unabated warming. See first three graphs here:

      (Also, as a side note, the urban heat island effect has been studied – as one would expect – many times by climate scientists. Results show that it has no effect on plots of global temperature. See here, for example:

      • ToddM

        The data is bullshit. There was little deep measurement so they were extrapolated known to most as made up. The twists and contortions required to fuel this religion of belief is pathetic.

        • cgs

          Your comment is nonsensical. At least be scientific, and specific, in whatever criticism you have of OHC. Try again.

        • Tom Yulsman

          You could say something like, “I do not fully trust the data because x, y and z.” But if you keep up with childish and accusatory comments like “the data is [sic] bullshit,” Mr. ToddM, you will be permanently banned from the site. If you want to be taken seriously — and continue commenting here – grow up and be serious.

          • ToddM

            Stuff it Tommie. Your religion is anti science nonsense for easily led drones of anti capitalists and communists who have hijacked environmentalism for their own perverted purposes. The lack of data at depth is well known to anyone paying attention. The ocean can only hold solar heat and has almost no impact from a degree change in air temperature. Censor away, it is what the left is best at.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. ToddM: You are welcome to comment here. But if you think I, or the scientists I cover, are liars and therefore not honorable, go somewhere else. You are not welcome here. But if you take exception on the basis of facts and rationality, please stay and make a constructive contribution.

  • Mike Richardson

    Well, in short order, we’ve already seen some eager to post some alternative facts to dispute the actual facts of climate change, and to defend Trump. Perhaps they suffer from Trump Unbelievable Reality Denying Syndrome – just bear in mind the acronym, which aptly describes how odious it can be. After all, some would call him a success, but at what exactly? Marriage — he’ s a serial philanderer who married his previous two mistresses. Business – he’ s declared bankruptcy on multiple occasions, wasted more money than he would have had if he’d simply invested it, and has made a habit of not paying those who work for him. Ethics – he had to settle the Trump University fraud case, he’s been caught in numerous lies (such as his inauguration crowd numbers, allegations of illegal voting, etc.), and let’s not forget his well-documented comments regarding women. Popularity – he lost the popular vote by three million votes, and had more people show up for the protests than his inauguration. No, I’d really question the judgement and morals of anyone so fervently defending Trump. Sad!

    • OWilson

      As an American government worker you will have to come to terms with your irrational revulsion towards your duly elected President, and the citizens that legally voted for him.

      It’s called Democracy!

      You state that you think defending him is “immoral”, These are also the the views of the Senior Secret Service official Kerry O’Grady who says she’s rather go to jail than take a bullet for him.

      Is The White House, Senate, and Congress, and most of the State Legislatures which are in Republican hands illegitimate too?


      So perhaps you could explain to the group, how you, as a public servant, and those in the Secret Service who think it is immoral to “defend” your Commander in Chief, should deal with your dilemma.

      Is your Military “immoral” for defending their Commander In Chief? Should they refuse to obey his orders on the grounds that you lay out above?

      What precedent would be set?

      What would make this situation any different from your average tin pot third world o banana republic?

      This is serious stuff you are expounding here, revolutionary, and does it conflict with your government position?

      Do public servants not take an oath to serve their duly elected employers, and ALL the population, however they choose to vote?

      Please enlighten us “deplorables”!

      • Mike Richardson

        Actually, there is nothing irrational in experiencing revulsion to a President who behaves in such a reprehensible manner. And while civil servants are to respect the office of President, we are not required to defend the questionable character of a particular president. Such slavish devotion to the man, and not the office or your fellow citizens, is the surest sign that you’re living in a “tin pot third world banana republic.” It’s a shame you apparently can’t make that distinction.

        As for the Secret Service agent you referenced, I’ m sure there will be consequences for her stated refusal not to do her job. She did, however, admit to being the victim of sexual assault herself many years ago, which influenced her reaction. Of course, I don’t expect that would generate much sympathy from you, as you have repeatedly expressed admiration for Trump despite his documented bragging of his perceived ability to get away with sexual assault. You’ve mentioned being married on multiple occasions — would your spouse consider your sympathy for a potential sex offender over the victim of assault “troubling?”. Most would.

        Don’t like the term “irredeemable deplorables” snowflake? Try not providing regular examples of such behavior, as your idol does. 😉

        • OWilson

          We stopped worrying about the sexual predilections of your U.S.politicians after Clinton lied to everyone including Congress, and was Impeached, fined, disbarred, and paid out some $850,000.00 to Paula for dropping his pants and telling her to kiss it! Lol.

          (It’s only about sex, they told us)

          He is still very much an international joke where my black wife lives, and they get very little of our news down there :) I traveled extensively through Europe earlier and it was the same there.

          He set the gold standard on sexual misconduct, adultery, you name it, and he did it WHILE he was President. Trump’s adultery and Obama’s self admitted drug use all took place before they took the oath of office.

          Likewise, Trumps estimation of crowd sizes sent CNN on a demented 4 days of wall to wall prime time programming with huge panels, subway tolls, aerial maps, military reconnaissance and interviews with Trump haters over a just couple of tweets and a line in a speech!

          (He’s still playing them like a fiddle! Very important major domestic and international initatives are being put through at a blinding pace, while the MSM, like proper lefties, parsing his grammar. Lol

          But when Obama lied directly to the people and said multiple times, “IF YOU LIKE YOUR CAN KEEP YOUR (PLAN, DOCTOR) AND SAVE $2,500.00 Per Family”

          Or there is “not a smidgen of corruption” when high level officials at IRS and State Department are Pleading the Fifth, and the State department is being run out of Hillary’s bathroom server,

          He set his own gold standard for lying.

          If you want to talk sensibly about politics, you need a sense of perspective.

          Trump is not my “idol” no politician is. That is in your deluded head.

          That level of adoration is strictly a failing of the snowflake left.


          • Mike Richardson

            Ah, yes, Bill Clinton of course! LOL — now who’s showing a deranged obsession with a politician? 😉

            “Trump’s estimation of crowd sizes sent CNN on a demented 4 days of wall to wall prime time programming with huge panels, subway tolls, arial maps, military reconnaissance, and interviews… over just a couple of tweets and a line in a speech!”. – – Oh dear, now you’re being almost as dishonest as Trump himself. Nothing so elaborate was needed to disprove the lie over crowd size — simple side-by-side photos of the Obama and Trump inauguration crowds did that. And it was more than ” tweets” and “a line.”. He had his press secretary humiliate himself this past weekend, continuing to state that it was the biggest inauguration crowd ever, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Then poor Ms. Conway had to go argue that the White House relied on ” alternative facts ” (aka, lies).

            But the more serious lie this week, elevated even to the level of an executive order (now who’s an imperial president?), is that Trump lost the popular vote due to “millions” of illegal votes. This has, of course, been independently researched and thoroughly debunked, but Trump continues to insist on repeating this falsehood regardless. To have the President lie about the integrity of the vote is not a healthy sign for a democracy.

            The denial of reality by a curmudgeonly Canadian contrarian of little consequence does not particularly bother me. However, when the President of the United States makes such a habit of rejecting the truth, it has serious consequences for our country, climate science, and the world. The real snowflakes are the ones who can’t accept that truth. Do try not to melt, now. 😉

          • OWilson

            The ones criticizing Trump the most are CNN (of Candy Crawley) fame, the CNN who leaked debate questions to Hillary in advance. LOL

            Nobody takes them seriously.

            I don’t take you seriously so you get the last word! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            See, you can learn to behave in a somewhat civilized manner! And how magnanimous of you, allowing me the last word in a thread I started (well, at least you were before you completely rewrote this last response). But I can’t blame you for turning tail at this point– even you have to get weary of trying to excuse easily proven pathological lying, and it was starting to show in you ever weaker responses. And if at some point I actually start acting delusional, you can feel well-complimented, as imitation is considered the highest form of flattery, right? 😉

            Truly delusional behavior would be expecting a liar and a con man to change his ways and work to combat climate change, rather than exacerbating the problem by executive order. But unlike some, I acknowledge reality, no matter how ugly it may be.

    • John C

      Neuroskeptic has a post about Trump Derangement Syndrome. You should check it out.

      • Mike Richardson

        Perhaps you may yourself be experiencing T.U.R.D.S., as referenced above. Try a good dose of reality and call me in the morning! :)

  • John C

    All the more reason we should be building more nuclear plants with the latest technology. Which the Greens are dead set against, of course.

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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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