Geography 4271/5271: The Arctic Climate System

Fall 2016

Lecture Time/Location:
Tuesday & Thursday 12:30-1:45


Instructor: Mark Serreze


Office Hours:

Tuesday & Thursday 1:45-2:30 OR by appointment

GUGG 103


The Arctic region plays a key role in regulating global climate and is in the midst of rapid change, with impacts on physical, biological, and human systems both within and beyond the region. This comprehensive assessment of the Arctic climate system begins with an overview of the Arctic's basic physical characteristics and climatic features. Attention then turns to the atmospheric energy budget, the atmospheric circulation, the surface energy budget, the hydrologic cycle, and the fascinating interactions between the atmosphere, Arctic Ocean, and its sea ice cover. Following an overview of numerical modeling of the Arctic system, we explore Arctic climate history over the past two million years. The final segment of the course explores the future of Arctic climate and potential impacts on society, including issues such as increased access to oil, gas and mineral wealth at the bottom of the ocean, commercial shipping and conflict between stakeholders. The course will use the 2nd edition of the instructor's textbook, "The Arctic Climate System" and additional materials as needed. It is assumed that the student has already taken at least one course in climate science, meteorology, hydrology or physics and has basic mathematic skills, and computer skills (and ability to work in Excel).

Required Readings

Serreze, M.C. and R.G. Barry (2014), "The Arctic Climate System", 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press

Articles from "Geophysical Research Letters" and other journals regarding key topics, recent advances and notable events (exam questions may draw from these articles)

Grading Policy


There will be two exams (midterm and final, 15% each, 30% of the total grade) with short answer and essay sections.  There will be 8 homework assignments; students may drop one of the eight homework assignments (5% each, 35% of the total grade).  These assignments focus on quantitative calculations surrounding various aspects of the Arctic climate system (e.g., radiation and surface energy budgets, hydrology, climate, snow cover, sea ice growth, atmospheric circulation).  There will also be 10 essay assignments of 500 words each on various topics of Arctic climate.  Students may drop 2 of the 10 essay assignments (3% each, 24 %).  The remaining 11% of the total grade will be based on attendance, class participation and effort.  Essays and homework assignments are due Friday at midnight of each week indicated; see D2L for details.


The two exams will be worth 10% each (20% total), the (7 of 8) homework assignments worth 35% and the (8 of 10) essays worth 24%.  The remaining 21% of the class grade will comprise a term paper (20 pages, no larger than 12 point type, not including figures or references) on a topic of the student’s choice. Part of this grade will be based on presentation of the term paper in class during Week 15. The paper itself is due midnight before the day of the final. Essays and homework assignment are due Friday midnight of each week indicated, see D2L for details. Some of the homework assignments will have an extra section for the graduate students.

Class Schedule Fall 2016 (subject to alteration)




Assignments & Essays

Week 1

Aug 23, 25


-The history of Arctic exploration
-A climatically important region undergoing rapid change
-The Arctic’s growing economic and strategic importance
-The Arctic Ocean
-The Arctic lands
-Basic climatic elements

Chapters 1 & 2


Week 2

Aug 30. Sep 2

The Arctic Energy Budget

-Role of the Arctic in the global energy budget
-The Arctic energy budget: focus on the seasonal cycle

Chapter 3



Week 3

Sep 6, 8

The Atmospheric Circulation

-Circulation of the troposphere
-Circulation at the surface

Chapter 4


Week 4

Sep 13, 15

The Atmospheric Circulation

-Winter – focus on the Icelandic Low region
-Modes of circulation variability
-Summer – focus on the central Arctic Ocean
-Polar lows

Chapter 4



Week 5

Sep 20, 22

Energy Exchanges at the Surface

-Basic considerations
-Radiative terms
-Cloud radiative effect
-The non-radiative terms
-Arctic temperature inversions
-Climate feedbacks and the surface energy budget

Chapter 5


Week 6

Sep 20, 22

The Hydrologic Cycle

-Net precipitation (precipitation minus evaporation)
-The Arctic terrestrial drainage system
-The freshwater budget of the Arctic Ocean

Chapter 6



Week 7

Oct 4, 6

Guest Lecture

EXAM #1 (Oct 6)

Week 8

Oct 11, 13

Arctic Ocean-Sea Ice-Climate Interactions

-The shrinking sea ice cover
-Sea ice formation, growth and morphology

Chapter 7


Week 9

Oct 18, 20

Arctic Ocean-Sea Ice-Climate Interactions

-Sea ice motion, thickness and deformation
-Case studies:  September ice extent for extreme years
-The Fram Strait outflow, thermohaline circulation and Arctic back door

Chapter 7 ESSAY #6

Week 10

Oct 25, 27

Climate Regimes of the Arctic

-The climate of Greenland
-Polar desert
-The maritime Arctic
-The central Arctic Ocean

Chapter 8



Week 11

Nov 1, 3

Modeling the Arctic System

-Single column models
-Numerical weather prediction models
-Sea ice and ice-ocean models
-Global climate models
-Land surface models
-Regional models
-Ecosystem models

Chapter 9



Week 12

Nov 8, 10

Arctic Paleoclimates

-The distant past
-Types of paleoclimate records
-Chronology of the Quaternary
-The last glacial cycle and rapid climate shifts
-Deglaciation and the Holocene

Chapter 10 ESSAY #9

Week 13

Nov 15, 17

The Uncertain Future

-Model uncertainties and wild cards
-Impacts of Arctic climate change outside of the Arctic

Chapter 11 ESSAY #10

Week 14

Nov 22, 24


Week 15

Nov 29, Dec1

Presentation of papers by graduate students   HOMEWORK #8

Week 16

Dec 6, 8

Borader Issues: The Accessible Arctic

-Commercial shipping/tourism
-Resource exploration and production (oil, gas, minerals)
-Conflicts between stakeholders


Week 17

Date TBD



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