Arctic ice and water

Spring 2019

Lecture Time/Location:
Tuesday & Thursday 9:30-10:45, GUGG 2

​Prof. Mark C. Serreze

Teaching Assistant:  
Jessica Egan,
Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday 1:00-2:00 Guggenheim 102B or by appointment

Office Hours: 
Tuesday and Thursday 10:45-11:30 Guggenheim 102B or by appointment

Course Description

The Arctic region plays a key role in regulating global climate and is in the midst of rapid change, altering 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 climate. 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 the student has already taken at least one course in climate science, meteorology, hydrology or physics and has basic mathematic skills and computer skills (an ability to work in Excel). 

Syllabus (subject to change)

Week 1 (Jan. 15, 17): Introduction (Chapters 1 and 2)

  • 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
  • ESSAY #1

Week 2 (Jan. 22, 24): Atmospheric and oceanic energy budgets (Chapter 3)

  • Role of the Arctic in the global energy budget
  • Atmospheric energy transports

Week 3 (Jan. 29, 31): Atmospheric and oceanic energy budgets (Chapter 3, continued) and the atmospheric circulation (Chapter 4) [SERREZE ON TRAVEL JAN 29, 31]

  • Energy budgets:  A focus on the seasonal cycle
  • Circulation of the troposphere
  • Circulation at the surface 
  • HOMEWORK # 2

 Week 4 (Feb. 5, 7): The atmospheric circulation (Chapter 4)

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

Week 5 (Feb. 12, 14): Energy exchanges at the surface (Chapter 5)

  • Basic considerations
  • Radiative terms 
  • Cloud radiative effect
  • The non-radiative terms
  • Arctic temperature inversions
  • Climate feedbacks and the surface energy budget
  • ESSAY #4

Week 6 (Feb. 19, 21): Special Topics and Exam # 1

  • EXAM #1 (October 5)
  • Guest Lecture (I’m away in NYC)

Week 7 (Feb. 26, 28): The hydrologic cycle (Chapter 6) [SERREZE ON TRAVEL FEB 26]

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

Week 8 (Mar. 5, 7): Arctic ocean-sea ice-climate interactions (Chapter 7)

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

Week 9 (Mar. 12, 14): Arctic ocean-sea ice-climate interactions (Chapter 7)

  • Sea ice motion, thickness and deformation
  • Case studies: September ice extent for extreme years
  • The Fram Strait outflow, thermohaline circulation and Arctic back door
  • ESSAY #6

Week 10 (Mar. 19, 21): Climate regimes of the Arctic (Chapter 8)

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

Week 11 (Mar. 26, 28): No Classes, Spring Break 

Week 12 (Apr. 2, 4): Modeling the Arctic system (Chapter 9)

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

Week 13 (Apr. 9, 11): Arctic paleoclimates (Chapter 10

  • The distant past
  • Types of paleoclimate records
  • Chronology of the Quaternary
  • The last glacial cycle and rapid climate shifts
  • Deglaciation and the Holocene
  • ESSAY #9

Week 14 (Apr. 16, 18): The uncertain future (Chapter 11)

  • Model uncertainties and wild cards
  • Impacts of Arctic climate change outside of the Arctic
  • ESSAY #10

Week 15 (Apr. 23, 25): Presentation of papers by graduate students


Week 16 (Apr. 30, May 2): Broader Issues: The accessible Arctic

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

Week 17: EXAM #2 (During finals week, time TBD)

Grading, undergraduate students

The final grade is based on 100 possible points. There will be two exams (a midterm and a final, worth 15 points each, collectively representing 30% of the total grade) with short answer and essay sections. There will be 8 homework assignments, worth 5 points each, representing 35% of the total grade (students may drop one homework assignment). These homework 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, worth 4 points each, collectively representing 32% of the total grade (student may drop two essay assignments). The remaining 3 points are for attendance and effort, assigned at the discretion of the instructor. Essays and homework assignments are due Friday midnight of each week indicated, see D2L for dropbox details. 

Grading, graduate students

The final grade will be based on a total of 130 points. Exams (30 points total), homework assignments (35 points total), essays (32 points total) and attendance and effort (3 points) are the same as those for the undergraduates, but some of the homework assignments will have additional calculations. The additional 30 points (to achieve the 130 point total) will comprise a term paper (25 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 towards the end of the semester. 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 dropbox details.  

Required readings

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

Articles from various courses addressing key topics, recent advances and notable events (exam questions may draw from these articles)

Accommodation for Disabilities

If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability, please submit your accommodation letter from Disability Services to your faculty member in a timely manner so that your needs can be addressed. Disability Services determines accommodations based on documented disabilities in the academic environment. Information on requesting accommodations is located on the Disability Services website. Contact Disability Services at 303-492-8671 or for further assistance. If you have a temporary medical condition or injury, see Temporary Medical Conditions under the Students tab on the Disability Services website.

Classroom Behavior

Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining an appropriate learning environment. Those who fail to adhere to such behavioral standards may be subject to discipline. Professional courtesy and sensitivity are especially important with respect to individuals and topics dealing with race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, political affiliation or political philosophy. Class rosters are provided to the instructor with the student's legal name. I will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I may make appropriate changes to my records. For more information, see the policies on classroom behavior and the Student Code of Conduct.

Honor Code

All students enrolled in a University of Colorado Boulder course are responsible for knowing and adhering to the Honor Code. Violations of the policy may include: plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, lying, bribery, threat, unauthorized access to academic materials, clicker fraud, submitting the same or similar work in more than one course without permission from all course instructors involved, and aiding academic dishonesty. All incidents of academic misconduct will be reported to the Honor Code (; 303-492-5550). Students who are found responsible for violating the academic integrity policy will be subject to nonacademic sanctions from the Honor Code as well as academic sanctions from the faculty member. Additional information regarding the Honor Code academic integrity policy can be found at the Honor Code Office website.

Sexual Misconduct, Discrimination, Harassment and/or Related Retaliation

The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) is committed to fostering a positive and welcoming learning, working, and living environment. CU Boulder will not tolerate acts of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault, exploitation, harassment, dating or domestic violence, and stalking), discrimination, and harassment by members of our community. Individuals who believe they have been subject to misconduct or retaliatory actions for reporting a concern should contact the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) at 303-492-2127 or Information about the OIEC, university policies, anonymous reporting, and the campus resources can be found on the OIEC website.  Please know that faculty and instructors have a responsibility to inform OIEC when made aware of incidents of sexual misconduct, discrimination, harassment and/or related retaliation, to ensure that individuals impacted receive information about options for reporting and support resources.

Religious Holidays

Campus policy regarding religious observances requires that faculty make every effort to deal reasonably and fairly with all students who, because of religious obligations, have conflicts with scheduled exams, assignments or required attendance. 

See the campus policy regarding religious observances for full details.