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He created a beloved blog about the melting Arctic. But it got harder and harder to write

Chris Mooney, Washington Post, Nov 30 2016 - 11:45

In 2007, Neven Curlin, a Dutch citizen now living in Austria who works as a translator, was stunned by the state of the Arctic, and particularly the floating ice that covers its ocean. It had shrunken to what was then the lowest extent yet observed by humans, just 1.61 million square miles in September at the end of summer. The dwindling of the planet’s icy cap, long predicted by scientists, was happening at a stunning pace.

Curlin, who had long been worried by global warming, began to follow the condition of sea ice closely and by 2010, started his own blog about it, unassumingly titled “Arctic Sea Ice Blog: Interesting News and Data.” “For years I’ve been missing a central place where the situation in the Arctic can be discussed. I always had to glean information and explanation from little corners of the comment sections of blog articles, so let’s see if the Arctic deserves its own blog,” he wrote in his first entry.

“I really felt this urge to do something. And I felt that Arctic sea ice is the frontier of global warming, where it’s going to be noticed most,” Curlin remembers now.

Scientists would agree — they’ve been predicting that the warming of the climate would be amplified in the Arctic for decades, and now there is clear evidence that’s happening. Moreover, these changes are reverberating across the mid-latitudes, potentially affecting our weather, our winters, and our sea levels through the melting of Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet.

Curlin’s blog went on to gain a dedicated following, simultaneously drawing in researchers and amateurs who monitored and commented on all the data products that scientists now offer to let us chart the pulse of the Arctic. For a bit of its flavor, consider Curlin’s recent rundown “in images” (more than 15 of them) of the 2016 sea ice melt season, which wound up with the second lowest extent of Arctic ice on record, despite a cloudy summer that should have impaired ice melt.

One reason for this anomaly, he explained, was a huge Arctic cyclone and another additional storm that broke up the ice and blew some of it in the direction of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This meant sending it to lower latitudes to melt, in smaller pieces that are more vulnerable. Curlin memorably described the ice as having been “pushed through [the] garlic press” of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and its many islands.

“And so, despite cloudy conditions during June, July and part of August…sea ice extent ended up second lowest on record,” Curlin concluded.

Such was what you found at the Arctic Sea Ice Blog during melt season, but also around the year. And believe it or not, it seems there’s a fairly wide audience for tracking the Arctic’s collapse through data, images, and analysis.

“Neven’s blog became a focal point for emerging citizen-science interest in Arctic sea ice,” said Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist and survey researcher at the University of New Hampshire who often polls on climate change and people’s views of the Arctic. “The topic itself, with much public data on global change unfolding in real time, attracts this sort of engagement,” he continued.

“Neven’s blog site has a nice balance of technical accuracy, acumen, yet understandably clear,” adds Glen Koehler, a researcher at the University of Maine who has been a longtime reader. “He came across with an almost childlike innocence of a young guy trying to figure out what was going on with the Arctic sea ice.”

Traffic to the blog really amped up in 2012, when Arctic sea ice trended towards its current record low of just 1.32 million square miles in September, well below what was seen in 2007 and even 2016. The shrinkage was partly amplified by an enormous cyclone over the Arctic — and Curlin was there to chart it all.

“After the 2012 record, when you remember when there was that big cyclone, that was like 25,000 page views per day, which is, yeah, not bad for a blog dedicated to such an obscure subject,” Curlin recalled. It was at that point that he expanded further by creating the “Arctic Sea Ice Forum,” which now has over 1,000 members and features discussions daily not just about floating Arctic ice, but also the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica, thawing permafrost, and much else.

But a problem was emerging — Curlin wasn’t just tracking the change, he was feeling it too. As he wrote in 2012, shortly after the record fell:

….this stunning melting season has made me even more acutely aware of the gravity of what is taking place….To be able to watch and write about the Arctic sea ice, I used to block out the realisation of risks, so that I could make a joke here and there and be scientifically reticent in my own amateur way, keeping up appearances, acting objective.

But my bubble has burst. I’m already watching past the minimum. As the melting season ends, it feels as if things are only beginning. The age of consequences.

These words presage what just happened last week — Curlin just put the blog on hold, announcing what he called a “sabbatical (I hope).” He detailed a number of reasons, including not only personal ones (in addition to his job, he and his wife are home-schooling their daughter and busy building an eco-friendly house) but “the depression that comes with watching this steamroller just plough forward, is taking its toll.”

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