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Future Change is Revealed in the Arctic

Arctic change could lead to economic opportunities in shipping, fishing and bioprospecting, but we must avoid making decisions and investments based on yesterday’s circumstances, argues Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. International interest in the Arctic can contribute to solutions with global benefits.

Written by Jan-Gunnar Winther and Gunn Sissel Jaklin Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Ny-Alesund is a centre for international Arctic scientific research and environmental monitoring located on the Svalbard Archipelago. Norwegian Polar Institute/Max König

The Arctic is a hotspot. Not only is it more affected by global warming than the rest of the world, but it is also the place where non-Arctic nations are directing their political interests. Ny-Alesund, a research village in the Svalbard Archipelago at 79° N, can best be described as a natural laboratory. The Norwegian Polar Institute has been a cornerstone of the settlement there since 1968, but 10 countries now run research institutions, including China, India and South Korea, which inaugurated their stations following the turn of the millennium.

Global warming is an important reason for this interest in the far north, or the High North as Norwegians call it. Less summertime sea ice opens up numerous opportunities, including new shipping lanes, commercial fishing, bioprospecting and marine ingredients for bio-production (including those further down the food chain). Oil, gas and minerals are other resources that may be possible to exploit increasingly further north in the near future.

Norway manages a substantial part of the activity within the High North and puts a premium on taking care of the natural environment. However, today’s rapidly changing climate, and the major ecosystem changes that go with it, impose a fundamental challenge for management: the system is highly dynamic. We must avoid making decisions and investments for the future based on yesterday’s circumstances. This calls for a continuously updated knowledge base and sophisticated Earth-system models to project future changes.

We’re already observing big changes in the High North. Most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean is now less than one year old. Not long ago, multiyear ice, much of it more than five years old, was more abundant. As the sea ice diminishes in extent and thickness, it causes trouble for ice-associated species like the polar bear, and allows for more heat from the sun to be absorbed by the ocean. Rising waters (caused in part by melting glaciers), less sea ice and thawing permafrost contribute to coastal erosion, which threatens to eradicate settlements. As glaciers shrink and withdraw from the oceans, marine mammals and seabirds are losing the upwelling of rich nutrients that occurs when glacier fronts drop chunks of ice into the sea. On land, winter warm spells are melting snow that refreezes during cold snaps and forms a barrier between reindeer and their food. Onshore and offshore (seabed) permafrost thaw is releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. In addition, there is evidence that Arctic climate change affects weather and climate elsewhere in the world through atmospheric and oceanic connections.

But as the Arctic enters a new climate era, we need more information about it, especially the winter changes occurring there. For six months last winter, from January to June 2015, the Norwegian Polar Institute froze its research vessel, Lance, into the Arctic Ocean at 83°N 30°E, with climate researchers from 11 countries on board. The N-ICE2015 program focused on understanding the impact that the transition to thinner, first-year ice in the Arctic Ocean would have on the ocean, sea ice, the atmosphere and the ecosystem. The scientists’ efforts will generate important new knowledge that will improve weather forecasts and global climate models.

Other initiatives to help increase the knowledge base will materialize soon. Norway is building a state-of-the art polar research vessel to be launched in 2017; so are Germany, the U.K. and China. New technologies for research in remote and hostile conditions will also make a huge difference: remotely operated vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles will provide far more data about the changing Arctic than ever before.

We also expect collaboration among nations with an interest in climate change and the Arctic to yield even more robust data and provide global benefits. In 2011, the Arctic Council published an assessment, Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. This report can serve as an example for future work. The assessment emphasized how changes in the Arctic cryosphere (the frozen water part of the Earth system) have an impact on global climate and sea level, and that governments and institutions on all levels should increase co-operation and co-ordinate efforts to respond to the challenges that come with these changes.

We are already starting to see nations band together on Arctic research. The Norwegian Polar Institute was an active contributor to SWIPA, and with similar assessments and new research initiatives, there is a hope that the international polar research community will make even stronger contributions towards tomorrow’s decisions about our future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

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