Arctic Sea Ice Just Set Another Record Low—In Winter

By Tom Yulsman | February 8, 2018 5:39 pm

And what’s happening in the New Arctic is not staying there

The New Arctic

I shot this iPhone photo of Arctic sea ice in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island while flying from Iceland to Denver on Jan. 30, 2018. (Photo: ©Tom Yulsman)

Another month, yet another record low for Arctic sea ice extent in a warming world.

January’s average ice extent in the Arctic was 525,000 square miles below the 1981-to-2010 average, making it the lowest January extent in the satellite record. This is an astonishingly large loss of ice — equivalent to 80 percent of Alaska.

But what happened in January was equally, if not more significant, for its timing. It happened when the Arctic was gripped by frigid, polar weather.

Record lows in the Arctic once occurred mostly in September — at the end of summer when relatively warm temperatures naturally cause the frozen lid of sea ice to shrink to an annual minimum extent. With human-caused warming added on top of relatively mild summer temperatures, record melt-backs in summer perhaps are not so surprising.

But now, dramatic reductions in sea ice are occurring more and more often during the cold season.

“Now we are seeing winter really get into the act as well,” says NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “The shrinking Arctic sea ice cover is no longer something that just stands out in summer.”

This shift to record lows in winter, scientists say, is yet another indication that human activities have already transformed the region into what they’re calling “the new Arctic.”

Why should those of us who don’t live in the Arctic care about what’s happening up there?

Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for Hungary — obviously not an Arctic nation — answered that question in this way, during an address to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Norway last month: “Whatever happens here in the Arctic has a direct and immediate impact on the rest of the world, and especially Europe.”

I don’t know about “immediate,” but there are myriad ways that changes in the Arctic are affecting the rest of the world — for example, changes to fisheries as fish stocks move north, and possible (but still unproven) effects on weather far to the south.

Shriveling sea ice also has turned the region into something of a new frontier. Many nations are eyeing the Arctic’s opening sea routes, its strategic position between Eurasia and North America, and its potentially huge reserves of oil and gas, as well as other resources.

This, in turn, is having geopolitical consequences. Among them: Russian military moves that some analysts believe are designed to bring down an “ice curtain” in the region — intended to deny other nations access to large swaths of the Arctic.

As sea ice growth last month was lagging far behind normal and heading for its record low, politicians and scientists attending the Arctic Frontiers conference were discussing the ramifications of the new Arctic. Among the scientists was Ingrid H. Onarheim, a researcher at the University of Bergen and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.

She began an overview talk about Arctic sea ice by putting the trend into a long-term context: “The recent sea ice loss is unprecedented,” she said, at least during the last 160 or so years.

Modern satellite monitoring of sea ice could not by itself reveal that insight, because it dates back only to 1979. So for a longer term perspective, researchers from NSIDC and elsewhere turned to novel data sources. These included whaling ship logs, sea ice charts from the Danish Meteorological Institute, compilations by U.S. Navy oceanographers, observations from aircraft, and other sources. All of this disparate information had to be digitized and then synthesized to be compatible with one another.

The resulting database, going all the way back to 1850, shows that at least since then “we’ve never had as little ice as we have now,” Onarheim told her colleagues at Arctic Frontiers.

Here’s what that looks like in graphic form:

Before getting into what these maps show, I should point out that there is a typo in the one on the left. It should be 1850-1900.

With that correction in mind, let’s turn to the details. The left-hand map above shows the concentration of sea ice during September of 1854. The new database shows that this month had the smallest ice extent during the entire 1850-1900 period.

The other maps in the triptych show what sea ice looked like for the lowest September in each of those respective periods.

The take-away message from the triptych is pretty clear. As the authors of the paper describing the new long-term database wrote:

It is apparent that the recent September minimum of 2012 is far less than the minima of the two earlier . . . periods. This comparison indicates that the summer ice minima of the past decade have no precedents in earlier decades back to 1850.

But as last month’s record low ice extent shows, significant sea ice losses are no longer mostly confined to the warmer months. I think you can see that pretty well in this graphic showing how Arctic sea ice fared during each of the 1,956 months between 1850 and 2013:

The New Arctic

The status of Arctic sea ice month-by-month (vertical axis) and year-by-year (horizontal axis). Blues indicate ice extent that’s below the long-term mean. Reds indicate the opposite. (Source: Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, after a figure by Julienne Stroeve, National Snow and Ice Data Center)

The first thing that jumps out at me is the dominance of blue, meaning lower than average sea ice, starting around 1975. It’s most pronounced during July, August and September, the warm months. But recently, deeper blues have been spreading out into the cold season months of November through April.

“We are losing sea ice in all seasons now,” Onarheim said, echoing the NSIDC’s Mark Serreze. “The changes in ice are spreading from the summer to winter season.”

There is no doubt as to what’s behind the accelerating decline of the sea ice at the top of the world: warming from humankind’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There is also no doubt that the Arctic is actually ground zero for climate change — it’s warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole.

But the Arctic is a very big place, and the regional patterns are just as important as the overall trend.

No region has been affected more than the Barents Sea, located north of Norway and Russia, and the nearby waters just north of the archipelago of Svalbard. And as it turns out, the strongest effect in this part of the Arctic has been — you guessed it — during winter, according to Onarheim.

Scientists are working hard to explain why this is so, and research suggests that the answer can be summed up this way: In this region, the Arctic is experiencing what some call “Atlantification.”

The New Arctic

The Gulf Stream, carrying warm Atlantic water, moves north along the Norwegian coast and divides into two main branches, one on either side side of the island archipelago of Svalbard. In the Arctic Ocean, this Atlantic water becomes denser as it cools and therefore sinks. After circulating, the now cold water leaves the Arctic Ocean, mainly through the Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland. (Illustration: Audun Igesund, Norwegian Polar Institute).

Scientists have known for 100 years that warm Atlantic water rides north on the back of the Gulf Stream, and that extensions of that massive current take it all the way up into the Barents Sea and over the top of Svalbard. (See the map above.) Research has shown that increasingly warm Atlantic Ocean water carried on these currents — about 1 degree C warming since 1979 — is inhibiting sea ice from forming, even as winter air temperatures continue to plunge well below freezing.

Research by Onarheim and her colleagues shows that warming Atlantic waters arriving north of Svalbard on the currents are having several specific impacts. To start with, they push under the sea ice that does form, inhibiting further growth and even causing it to melt from underneath.  This leaves the ice thinner and less extensive than it otherwise would be.

With less floating ice forming a cap on the sea during winter, the relatively warm sea water is able to give up more heat to the atmosphere. And that helps explain a nearly 7 degree C increase in mean air temperature north of Svalbard in winter, according to Onarheim’s research.

As air temperatures naturally warm in the spring, the thinner ice can melt out faster. That leaves the water exposed to sunlight for longer periods. So it absorbs more energy and heats up — inhibiting the formation of ice when cold air temperatures return with a vengeance in the fall. And that means still less sea ice in the winter months.

The New Arctic

Here is how energy has been accumulating within Earth’s climate system, thanks to humankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. As the graph shows, most of the energy has been been absorbed by the oceans. The rest has gone to melting ice, warming continental land masses and the atmosphere. (Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report)

The oceans make up 70 percent of our planet’s surface. And water is particularly adept at soaking up heat. So much so, in fact, that Earth’s oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the heat that has accumulated in the planet’s climate system due to our emissions of greenhouse gases.

As we’ve now seen, some of that heat has a tendency to come out — nowhere more readily than in the Arctic, where the frigid atmosphere is practically begging to absorb heat, and where the Gulf Stream’s northernmost extensions have been only too happy to oblige.

Onarheim’s overarching take-away message during her Arctic Frontiers talk was this: Computer modeling of the climate system suggests that unless we significantly rein in CO2 emissions soon, Arctic waters could be sea-ice free during summer by about mid-century. Sea ice would still form in winter. But the models also predict that continuing warming would lead to ice-free Arctic waters in winter between 2061 and 2088. (The rather large range represents the possible impact of natural climate processes.)

In other words, the models are saying that in just a little more than forty years, Arctic waters could be ice free year ’round. That would give us a radically new Arctic — and a very different planet than the one we live on today.

One last thing: So far, Arctic sea ice has been disappearing more quickly than the models have predicted. So we may not have to wait four decades for completely ice-free Arctic waters.

“If we want to keep the ice cover, we have to reduce the CO2 emissions,” Onarheim says. “The faster we emit the CO2, the faster we will lose the sea ice.”

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  • OWilson

    So they moved their latest “predictions” for an “ice free Arctic” predictions now to 2061/2088 instead of “next summer” (NSIDC, 2009) and “2016” (Al Gore).

    That at least gives us some comfort (if they are right this time :) along with the fact that World Agricultural Production is setting new records yearly, and some high level influential folks are saying that the little warming (currently 0.26 degrees over NOAA’s etire satellite record, may be actually beneficial to personkind.

    • Mike Richardson

      What “high level influential folks?” Scientists? I’d appreciate some names to back up that claim. :)

      • OWilson

        You won’t find any references to them in your favorite quoted links, Washington Post, and obscure Florida Newspapers, but a little research on Google might open your eyes to the other side of the debate! :)

        To get you started, you may have heard of your own government Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency?

        Or maybe have a you passing aquaintance with Mother Nature who has bestowed all her bountiful gifts on humanity during the warmer periods on this Earth. She continues to do so as we continue to set World Records for Agricultural Food Production every year, as the Earth warms slightly.

        You’d need to check out a little social and anthroplogical history here though, and it may be a tough grind for you!

        Nevertheless being well informed requires a little work, looking at all sides of the issues, not just letting the Washington Post tell you what to think! :)

        There are two sources, to get you started, and they don’t get more high level or influential than that!

        Have fun, and let us know what you find, ok? :)

        • Mike Richardson

          “To get you started, you may have heard of your own Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency?” – – Wow, I was afraid you might be going there, but really? Scott Pruitt, who up until just recently denied that climate change was occurring due to greenhouse gas emissions, before evolving to a position that involves either minimizing or putting a positive spin on warming (much as you do)? Pruitt, who isn’t a scientist, but instead an industry insider–another fox guarding the henhouse political appointee? A guy whose dismantling rules protecting the environment and the public is making the title of the Environmental Protection Agency another example of Orwellian doublespeak? THAT is your appeal to authority argument? Sorry, but I’ll consider a well-researched story reporting on the findings of actual climate scientists (such as this blog, for example) more credible than Scott Pruitt — or you, for that matter! 😀

          • OWilson

            We were talking “influential” as in policy making, right, Mikey?

            Since he and Trump took over, the Global Warming Hysteria Hoax is having a “Me too” moment!

            Recent headlines:

            Starting with the above article: Ice Free Arctic is now postponed for another 50 years (no you can’t have your monry back! :)

            Then in the latest news we have:

            “”They just reported that Tuvalu, the poster child for inundated island groups is actually growing. They have pictures to prove it!

            The news from the Denmark is that the two poster children glaciers, Petermann and Jacobshavn in Greenland are growing again. They have pictures to prove it!

            NASA reports that sea levels have not risen in the last two years. There’s a chart to prove it!

            They just reported that the Arctic ice will not be gone anytime soon. At least, they are guessing, not for another 50 years, or so!

            Bloomberg is reporting today, that that scientists have just “ruled out” the worst case scenarios of Global Warming!

            “Why Asia’s Glaciers Are Mysteriously Expanding, Not Melting!” – LiveScience

            Explaining New Zealand’s unusual growing glaciers – Phys.org

            A study by the University of California San Diego has claimed that by 2050, the Sun is expected to become cool. You might think “what’s the big deal,” but remember that this means the solar activities that create the heat of the Sun to sustain life on Earth may diminish. And the last time it happened was in the 17th Century, when the Thames River froze. Scientists call this the “Maunder Minimum”.

            Physicist Dan Lubin at the university and his team studied the past event and concluded that were are in for a worse case. The Sun is expected to get much dimmer than last time and, in scientific terms, it is a “grand minimum” — a time period in the 11-year solar cycle when the solar activities are at the lowest point.

            Also read: Scientists warn of ‘mini ice age’ that could hit Earth and freeze major rivers by 2030 “””

            Follow the science, Mikey and send Bernie his fax machine back! Lol

          • Mike Richardson

            Yeah, “influential,” – – particularly when it’s a bad influence — isn’t synonymous with “correct.”. As for your “other influential source,” I have to admit that Mother Nature doesn’t personally speak to me, so I’m not privy to the special information She (or any other disembodied voices you might hear) shares just with you. I actually think you can learn from nature, and from the scientists who make a career of studying it and communicating their findings to the public. But it’s important to avoid cherry picking, as you do, and look at long term trends (As opposed to one season of heavy winter precipitation, or city waterfront being built up in select places while other urban areas and wetlands like Louisiana’s and Florida’s continue to vanish). But it’s great that there are pictures, now, since that’s how we conclusively proved the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFOs are all real — oh, wait, they’re not! 😂

          • OWilson

            You really equate NASA charts, Google Earth Engine History satellite photos with Bigfoot dress ups?

            Or maybe it’s your “Russians” again?

            I will remind you that it is Global Warmers that show stock photos of sick Polar Bears, and photo shopped pictures of New York under 30 feet of water.

            This is too much drivel, even to laugh at!

            I’m outta here!

            Mark it up to another “win” for you!

          • Mike Richardson

            You’re the one that seems fixated on Russians here. They must have joined the militant compatriots as the bane of your existence.

          • OWilson

            Why do you refer to me, an old retired Canadian as “comrade”, again? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Sou came back to add to your initial post, dissatisfied with how far you’d already derailed the conversation from the topic of the blog? Very well, but remember that you wanted to discuss proper context, so here goes:

            Your statement that my remark about “comrades” compares you to Russians is flat out false. In the other thread in which this comment was made, you stated that appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks were more at home in religion, today’s college campuses, or North Korea — pay attention –North Korea, not Russia. I then provided easily found examples of you engaging in both an ad hominem attack and an appeal to authority argument, then said, “Preach on brother, or is it comrade?”. It was an obvious allusion to religion and North Korean communists, for all but the most obtuse.

            The full context of your initial “militant compatriots” remark in another thread was that you made the rather astounding claim that “your more militant compatriots” had hacked your account. You of course provided no proof that the alleged cyber attack was politically motivated, leaving your claim to sound like the paranoid delusion it almost certainly is.

            There’s proper context for you, and it really didn’t help your credibility to go off topic on it here. :)

          • OWilson

            What a tortured, rambling, dissembling response.!

            You totally ignored the on topic discussion above!

            Needs no further comment from me!

            Bye Mikey!

          • Mike Richardson

            “Needs no further comment from me.”. Glad you realized what a mistake you made in choosing to change the topic to context, exposing yourself to further embarrassment. Feel free to lie some more in the future. I promise I’ll put it all in proper context. 😉

          • OWilson

            You are a very needy, insecure person, Mikey.

            Perhaps your self congratulatory, self aggrandizing narcissim will help keep you off the streets.

            But if you are going to sum up a scientific discussion, and put it in context, you need a modicum of reference to the actual subject being discussed.

            Your contorted back slapping of you and yourself aside, that is a major omission!

            Get well soon!

          • Mike Richardson

            Oh, I’m quite well. You, on the other hand, are clearly projecting in an effort to distract from just how deluded your hyper partisan views have made you. And unfortunately, I don’t think the prognosis for your recovery is very good at this point.

    • Dcoronata

      That was for summer ice.
      One would expect record crop yields with improving agricultural practices and improved automation.

      • OWilson

        I agree, it’s actually happening!, but that viewpoint has me labeled a “climate change denier”!

        • nosmokewithout

          Are you able to identify the reason for the record crop yields. Did you investigate whether the crops included new varieties, new fertilisers, changes in season cycles to increase yield, different crop management and harvesting techniques, different weather patterns, or have you just attributed all that crop yield to increase CO2?

          • OWilson

            All of the above!

            This increase in plant food, Co2, has helped too!

            “Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds | NASA

            Apr 26, 2016 – From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on April 25. An international team of 32 authors from 24 institutions in …

            “Deserts ‘greening’ from rising CO2 – Phys.org

            Jul 3, 2013 – Increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have helped boost green foliage across the world’s arid regions over the past 30 years through a process called CO2 fertilisation, according to CSIRO research. … Elevated carbon dioxide making arid regions greener. … ”

            “Rise in CO2 has ‘greened Planet Earth’ – BBC News

            Apr 25, 2016 – Carbon dioxide emissions from industrial society have driven a huge growth in trees and other plants. A new study says that if the extra green leaves prompted by rising CO2 levels were laid in a carpet, it would cover twice the continental USA. Climate sceptics argue the findings show that the extra CO2 is …”

            “Climate Change Is Turning Antarctica Green – Scientific American

            May 19, 2017 – “In short, we could see Antarctic greening to parallel well-established observations in the Arctic.” … But thinning ice has allowed them to thrive to such an extent that green patches of ice have been observed. … The higher elevation of Antarctica also allows less room for carbon dioxide and water vapor.”

            Your welcome! :)

          • nosmokewithout

            It is clear you cannot answer the question asked.

            “Are you able to identify the reason for the record crop yields.”

            The greening of the planet does not of necessity lead to an increase in crop yield and may well not drive current crop yield.

            You demonstrate a clear fallacy of logic by attempting to attribute increases in crop yield to CO2 driven greening.

            Firstly, the picture is complex and changes, crop by crop, agricultural region by agricultural region, nation by nation.

            To give you some idea, as you seem unaware of the complexity of this issue, here is what the EPA says on this issue.

            “Higher CO2 levels can affect crop yields. Some laboratory experiments suggest that elevated CO2 levels can increase plant growth. However, other factors, such as changing temperatures, ozone, and water and nutrient constraints, may counteract these potential increases in yield.

            For example, if temperature exceeds a crop’s optimal level, if sufficient water and nutrients are not available, yield increases may be reduced or reversed. Elevated CO2 has been associated with reduced protein and nitrogen content in alfalfa and soybean plants, resulting in a loss of quality. Reduced grain and forage quality can reduce the ability of pasture and rangeland to support grazing livestock.

            More extreme temperature and precipitation can prevent crops from growing. Extreme events, especially floods and droughts, can harm crops and reduce yields. For example, in 2010 and 2012, high nighttime temperatures affected corn yields across the U.S. Corn Belt, and premature budding due to a warm winter caused $220 million in losses of Michigan cherries in 2012.

            Dealing with drought could become a challenge in areas where rising summer temperatures cause soils to become drier. Although increased irrigation might be possible in some places, in other places water supplies may also be reduced, leaving less water available for irrigation when more is needed.

            Many weeds, pests, and fungi thrive under warmer temperatures, wetter climates, and increased CO2 levels. Currently, U.S. farmers spend more than $11 billion per year to fight weeds, which compete with crops for light, water, and nutrients.[1] The ranges and distribution of weeds and pests are likely to increase with climate change. This could cause new problems for farmers’ crops previously unexposed to these species.

            Though rising CO2 can stimulate plant growth, it also reduces the nutritional value of most food crops. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduce the concentrations of protein and essential minerals in most plant species, including wheat, soybeans, and rice. This direct effect of rising CO2 on the nutritional value of crops represents a potential threat to human health. Human health is also threatened by increased pesticide use due to increased pest pressures and reductions in the efficacy of pesticides”

          • OWilson

            You can’t read?

            I am NOT “attempting to attribute increases in crop yield to CO2 driven greening”

            I said ALL OF THE ABOVE!

            Now I’m done with you here!

          • nosmokewithout

            A dishonest answer really does not suffice! It fits well with normal obfuscation practice from denialists. You really are on your last legs!

          • Clifton Edwards

            If one looks through the history of your commentary, for years (yes, years) it has entirely consisted of picking fights with “denialists.” That is the definition of dogmatic thinking, and scientism rather than clear-headed application of the scientific method. Not saying you’re wrong about everything, but it doesn’t help when so many global warming “crusaders” like you so clearly are in it for the egoic boost one gets from claims to “mystical,” hidden knowledge that you can bark at all the “unenlightened” stupid people.

    • nosmokewithout

      ‘They’, who is ‘they’? Did ‘They’ have a previous prediction, or are these ‘They’ a different ‘They’ from the last ‘They’ you waffled on about. We are not talking about one person or even one group of people are we. We are not talking about researchers either in your case, are we? You are an expert at conflating any old rubbish in order to try score a point in your game of babble solitaire.

      Now try impress. Talk specific. Name names.

      • OWilson

        Here ya go! But is this really necessary?

        “We’re entering a new epoch of sea-ice melt in the Arctic Ocean due to climate change. In five years’ time most of the sea ice could be gone in summer with just an ‘Alamo of ice’ remaining north of Ellesmere Island.”
        Professor Peter Wadhams in: Scientific American, September 18, 2009

        “Scientists in the US have presented one of the most dramatic forecasts yet for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice.

        Their latest modelling studies indicate northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years. Professor Wieslaw Maslowski told an American Geophysical Union meeting that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss”. – BBC

        “The entire North polar ice cap may well be completely gone in 5 years. How can we comprehend the world in 3 billion years the period of time during which it has existed to 5 years the period of time during which it is expected to now disappear?” – Al Gore, Youtube video.

        “It seems unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.

        The disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, making it possible to reach the Pole sailing in a boat through open water, would be one of the most dramatic – and worrying – examples of the impact of global warming on the planet. Scientists say the ice at 90 degrees north may well have melted away by the summer.

        “From the viewpoint of science, the North Pole is just another point on the globe, but symbolically it is hugely important. There is supposed to be ice at the North Pole, not open water,” said Mark Serreze of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado”. – The Guardian

        “It is already upon us and its effects are being felt worldwide, right now,” he wrote. “Scientists project that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer of 2013. Not in 2050, but four years from now. Make no mistake: catastrophic climate change represents a threat to human security, global stability, and — yes — even to American national security.” – John Heinz-Kerry

        So if we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of the permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle — warming leading to more warming — that we do not want to be a part of. – Barack Hossein Obama

        “The ice that forms over the Arctic sea is shrinking so rapidly that it could vanish altogether in as little as four years’ time.”
        Professor Peter Wadhams in: The Telegraph, 8 Nov 2011

  • GC PATRIOT

    Wow almost another record low and there were no tidal waves from the melting and New York City is still above water – where’s Al Gore?
    Is this the inconvenient truth that Al was talking about?

  • Mac

    Looks like we’ve survived another, Al (Minister of Global Warming Alarmism) Gore’s Climageddon another year… and 40 to 50 more after that! Sounds like Climatology has become more an artful career move than a serious scientific inquiry.

    According to Freeman Dyson, CO2 is more than just good for a healthier world economy, it’s “extremely important,” says Dyson because, “It’s enormously beneficial both to food production and to biodiversity, preservation of species, and everything else that’s good.”

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ImaGeo

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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