The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

NOAA scientists explore the Arctic during a 2005 mission. (NOAA)

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.”

“It’s like you write about your favorite sports team, and they keep losing and losing and losing, but you still manage to write about it,” said Curlin in an interview. “But sometimes you sit back, and think about what it all really means, and yeah, it’s not motivating.”

The blog post announcing he was suspending writing drew more than 100 comments, mostly profuse praise. “You are in no way alone,” wrote one commenter named Sam. “I think nearly all of us here are in very nearly the same place as yourself. Trying to make sense out of any reasonable way forward from here is crazy making.”

Curlin says the last summer — the second lowest on record for sea ice — was particularly rough to chart, adding that “it depresses me” that scientists still don’t fully understand why the ice wound up being so low in 2016. And the depressed levels continued past the summer — when Curlin actually announced he was stepping back in late November, it was amid a seemingly unprecedented burst of early winter heat in the Arctic that drove sea ice down to all-time record low levels.

These record-low ice levels continued Tuesday, with 2016 ice extent far below where it was even during the prior record low year of 2012, showing the ice is struggling to refreeze as winter deepens:

Curlin insists the sabbatical isn’t necessarily permanent. His green house (a way to “walk the walk,” he writes) will be complete in a year — it helps that he received 17 thousand euros in donations from readers. The house doesn’t merely generate as much energy as his family uses — it actually produces more from its solar panels than they need, Curlin says. On the blog, he says another future objective will be to be able to grow half of all of his family’s food.

So it’s not that he’s depressed and giving up, he emphasizes — quite the contrary. It’s that he wants to be more active offline, not just busy online.

“In the end it’s about what happens in real life and I want to be a part of that as well. About putting the worry to practice, and not just raise awareness, but also, kind of create a blueprint of what people could do to help solve the problems on an individual level,” he says.

In the meantime, Curlin notes that the busy Arctic Sea Ice Forum is still open, and says that he’ll still provide monthly updates on a dataset called “PIOMAS,” which charts the thickness of Arctic ice, rather than merely its area. The problem isn’t just that ice is covering less and less of the Arctic ocean, after all, but that the ice that remains is growing thinner, meaning it is less likely to hold together throughout the course of the summer or in the face of storms and large waves.

“I think Neven and the group of citizen scientists and Arctic enthusiasts he banded to together have really been an amazing development,” said Axel Schweiger, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle who heads the PIOMAS project. “They have produced a lot of thoughtful discussion and analysis and shown a voracious appetite for the data and results the scientific community produced.”

Schweiger says of Curlin that “I’m glad that he’s only going on ‘sabbatical’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t manage to stay away from it for long.”

Curlin is, in the end, a creature of our saddening climate times — in which we have unprecedented volumes of data and analysis available, for the expert and for the amateur alike, allowing us to watch at high resolution as the world burns. It’s fascinating, it’s all-consuming — and sometimes, it’s also devastating. You can be a good analyst, you can even help scientists themselves think about things in a new way — but then, sometimes you also have to stop and feel.

In the meantime, many of Curlin’s fans are awaiting his return.

“I’m sorry to see him taking a break and hope that he’ll resume the blog again,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice expert with NASA. “I think it’s a loss to the general public and to the scientific community.”