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University of Colorado Boulder

Intro to the Arctic

University of Colorado Boulder via Coursera


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In this course you will first learn about the Arctic as a geographic region, the peoples the Arctic, and the long history of Arctic settlement and exploration. Attention then turns to key features of the Arctic environment – its climate and weather, features of the ocean, sea ice, lands and the Greenland Ice Sheet, and some of the rapid changes being observed. Learning Objectives: Appreciate the long history of the Arctic and its peoples. Recognize and recall the physical geography of the Arctic, including major features of the Arctic Ocean and Arctic lands. Describe the key climate and environmental elements of the Arctic, including its sea ice cover, patterns of temperature, precipitation, snow cover, land ice, permafrost and vegetation, the physical processes giving rise to these features, and how they are changing.


  • Introduction to the Arctic
    • With so much going on in the Arctic, it can be a challenge to decide where to start. This week we provide an overview of the Arctic as a geographic region, followed by some of the pronounced changes unfolding in the North, such as rapid warming, the shrinking sea ice cover and thawing permafrost. History provides context. As such, we need to explore how we built our knowledge of the Arctic, starting with the sometimes tragic ends of early explorers searching for the fabled Northwest Passage, then moving through the Cold War and into the present.
  • Arctic Climate Basics
    • To understand the Arctic system and the profound changes taking place, we need to become familiar with some of the basic climate drivers and features of the region, starting with solar energy, polar night, and the midnight sun. Attention then turns to patterns of temperature, precipitation and cloudiness and how they vary across the Arctic.
  • The Arctic Ocean
    • A defining feature of the Arctic is that it is a largely ice-covered ocean surrounded by land. While by area, it is the smallest of the world's oceans, it is by far the most interesting of them all. This week, we focus on the Arctic Ocean starting with some basics - its shallow seas and deep basins, and then move on to discuss the Arctic Ocean's floating ice cover. As we will learn, the Arctic sea ice cover, which ranges from a thin veneer to more than five meters thick, grows and shrinks with the seasons. The ice cover is in near constant motion, with ice flows squeezing together to form pressure ridges and pulling apart to form leads. Unlike other oceans, the Arctic Ocean has an intriguing vertical structure, with fresh cold water at the top and warm salty water below.
  • The Arctic Lands
    • The Arctic lands are much more than treeless, windswept tundra. Greenland, the largest island in the world, is mostly covered by an ice sheet up to 3,200 meters thick. It is losing mass and contributing to sea level rise. While much of the Arctic lands are indeed covered by tundra, the Arctic is also home to large swaths of forest and extensive mountain ranges. Some very large rivers drain into the Arctic Ocean, discharging massive amounts of fresh water. Almost all of the Arctic lands are covered with perennially frozen ground called permafrost. However, this permafrost is now thawing, changing the landscape and putting infrastructure at risk.
  • The Arctic Atmosphere
    • While blizzards, whiteouts and extreme winter cold are a part of living in the Arctic, summer thunderstorms are common over land. Arctic weather is varied and fascinating, but the Arctic region plays a bigger role in the climate system by helping to shape weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere. Arctic weather and climate is also shaped by teleconnections, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, that link weather conditions across widely separated locations. Another important framework for understanding the Arctic is its energy budget, which refers to the flows of energy into and out of the Arctic and between the atmospheric ocean.

Taught by

Mark C. Serreze


4.7 rating at Coursera based on 25 ratings

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