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Opportunities, Challenges, Responsibilities

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Sawyer Glacier. Alaska, Tracy Arm. © Dr. Terry McTigue, NOAA, NOS, NCCOS, CCMA. Sawyer Glacier. Alaska, Tracy Arm.
© Dr. Terry McTigue, NOAA, NOS, NCCOS, CCMA.

Larry Hinzman is the Director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  He is also chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE-Arctic). Dr. John Walsh is the Chief Scientist of the International Research Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His research has addressed Arctic climate weather variability, with an emphasis on sea ice variability and the role of sea ice and snow cover in weather and climate. This article originally appeared in The Circle 01.15.

The U.S. State Department, which represents the United States on the Arctic Council, has established priorities for the U.S. Chair including climate change impacts in the Arctic, stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, and improving Arctic economic and living conditions. Here, John Walsh and Larry Hinzman highlight several topics under these themes that can galvanize research communities within the United States and other nations during the coming U.S. Chair period.

Adaptation and resilience to Arctic climate change

Mitigation activities such as reduced emissions have the potential to alter the trajectory of Arctic climate change in the latter decades of the present century. However, some changes are already “locked” in the evolving climate system, making adaptation a crucial element for dealing with climate change over the next few decades. And despite increasing awareness of their importance, climate change adaptations, in the U.S. Arctic (Alaska) and other Arctic regions have to date been dominated by planning and monitoring, rather than implementation. The identification of adaptation options for northern regions is the objective of an existing, ongoing Arctic Council assessment (“Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic”). With this report scheduled for release in 2017, the facilitation of adaptation actions and resilience can be one of the signature activities of the U.S. Chair of the Arctic Council.

Climate change adaptations, in the U.S. Arctic (Alaska) and other Arctic regions have to date been dominated by planning and monitoring, rather than implementation.


High-latitude ocean acidification

The global ocean is 25 % more acidic today than it was 300 years ago, a change traceable to increasing levels of atmospheric CO2. The Arctic Ocean and Subarctic seas are especially vulnerable to increasing ocean acidity because of their large shallow shelf seas, cold water, and high rates of productivity. Acidification is a threat to Subarctic fisheries, including the Bering Sea, with major socioeconomic consequences. However, large uncertainties pervade our understanding and prediction of the rate of high-latitude ocean acidification, as well as its geographical distribution. Monitoring of ocean acidity in the Arctic has largely been done through occasional cruises (mostly during the warm season) and just a few buoys, while the modeling of variations in ocean acidification remains in its infancy. With a heightened global awareness of the threats posed by ocean acidification, the next few years present an opportunity for significant progress in understanding and predicting ocean acidification in the Arctic. Chairing the Arctic Council can serve as a catalyst for coordinated and systematic monitoring (by cruises, buoys, sub-ice sampling, and emerging technologies, such as underwater autonomous vehicles) of high-latitude water acidification. Analysis of the collected data can improve understanding of Arctic water sensitivity to CO2 uptake and acidification, and in turn inform the development of predictive models, enabling planning and adaptation by industry and coastal communities. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme can also play an important role in the assessment of high-latitude ocean acidification.

Arctic Indicators Network and Early Indicators Warning System for the Arctic

It is well known that recent global changes have been amplified in the Arctic. However, the Arctic is a complex system, and change will not manifest at similar rates within all components. Present monitoring of the Arctic is characterized by a reliance on remote sensing and sparse networks of in situ measurements, unevenly distributed among system components. A holistic picture of Arctic change requires that we define, implement, and maintain a more comprehensive and robust set of Arctic indicators. These indicators, highlighting the most imminent risks and thereby informing priorities for planning and adaptation activities, must span the physical, social, and economic components of the Arctic system. Physical indicators for the Arctic can build upon the monitoring activities of NOAA and NASA, and can augment the set of essential climate variables already identified to guide the Global Climate Observing System. Socioeconomic indicators, including land use, infrastructure, and measures of human well-being, have heretofore been generally uncoordinated internationally, inconsistently structured, and poorly (or not at all) integrated with physical indicators. Such integration represents an interdisciplinary challenge but also an outstanding opportunity for the period of the U.S. Chair.

Freshwater Security

Though the Arctic may appear a very wet area with ample water resources, the availability of freshwater is quite limited. Annual precipitation over the entire U.S. Arctic is less than that of any western U.S. state, including Wyoming and Arizona. Limited water availability is further constrained by the Arctic’s long winters, when surface water is bound up as ice or snow, and access to groundwater is limited by permafrost. Such restrictions place severe constraints on communities and industry. Villages in northern Alaska typically harvest water from small streams or lakes during the summer months and attempt to store adequate volumes to sustain the community for the nine or more winter months. Further, the extremely harsh climate greatly complicates the handling and processing of waste water, requiring large investments of capital, energy, and time. The strict limits and great costs associated with both obtaining clean water and eliminating waste water present serious challenges to family health and sanitation.

Public Outreach

The U. S. Chair of the Arctic Council comes at a unique time in the evolution of public awareness of Arctic change. The rapidity of recent changes at high latitudes creates an urgent need for greater public understanding of the Arctic, especially as the Arctic acts as a sentinel for broader global change. The potential change in global sea level as a result of a warming Arctic is an obvious example. The recent emergence of potential links between Arctic warming and extremes in mid-latitude weather and climate has also received recent media attention—often with conflicting interpretations about the Arctic’s role. Accurately conveying the evolving state of scientific knowledge about Arctic mid-latitude weather connections represents a challenge for the scientific community, as well as a tremendous opportunity to stimulate the broader public’s interest in the Arctic.

Closing Perspective

Policy leadership is essential. The Arctic is changing rapidly with regard to global access, resources, and exploitation. Improved scientific understanding of the Arctic environment will enable the international community to develop sound policies for the region’s use and sustainability, including the protection of its pristine environment, small populations of wildlife, fragile ecosystems, and sensitive communities of Indigenous peoples. This U.S. chair brings prestige and opportunities for U.S. interests, while also carrying a responsibility to balance development and environmental protection.

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