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Looming challenges

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This article originally appeared in issue 01.17 of The Circle. See all issues of The Circle here.

For much of the Arctic Council’s existence, climate change has been a driver behind the Council’s priorities. Now its latest update on climate science has been released, and LARS-OTTO REIERSEN says the climate-driven regime shift calls for urgent attention.


AFTER A LONG, STABLE PERIOD of thick multiyear ice, thinner one-year ice now characterizes Arctic sea ice cover; permafrost is thawing and snow cover extent is declining. The effects of changes in the Arctic sea ice extent have even been documented in southern latitudes, including South East Asia according to the new scientific assessment Snow, Water, Ices and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA 2017). These findings presented by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) to the Arctic Council Ministerial conference in May, 2017 update the earlier SWIPA assessment conducted by AMAP in 2011. These physical changes have already resulted in effects on Arctic ecosystems and societies, and together with regional and global socio-economic drivers documented in the three regional AMAP reports on Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic underscore an urgent need to improve adaptation strategies and actions to face this new reality. These changes are expected to continue for at least the next several decades.

According to the SWIPA 2017 assessment, Arctic temperatures will continue to increase and by 2040-50 the annual mean air temperature for areas north of 60°N will be 4-5°C higher than the reference period independent of any mitigation actions. This is due to the inherent input and transfer of energy (Fig.1). This figure also illustrates what may happen if no reduction is initiated – with the yearly average temperature potentially increasing by 10°C by 2100, and in winter months (November – March) by 13°C. If actions according to the Paris agreement (http:// agreement/ items/9485. phpt) are implemented, the increase might be reduced to 5-6°C on aver and 7°C in the winter months (blue curve reflecting the rcp 4.5). Therefore, the sooner mitigation action is initiated, and the more comprehensive this action, the greater its effect will be in reducing the long-term impact of the projected temperature rise in 2100.

Science, however, must still clarify numerous questions to help prepare for the near- and long-term future in the Arctic and the influence of climate change on southern latitudes. The priority will be to convey the new results to people living in the North and to decision makers so that the policy perspective of the new documentation can be understood.

Priorities include:

  • Better capability in predicting how changes in the Arctic cryosphere may affect the weather, climate and the hydrological system within the Arctic region and globally but especially for the Northern hemisphere. We specifically need to improve the prediction of extreme weather and how it may affect infrastructure such as houses, roads, harbors, airports, etc., and the environment thereby allowing governments and businesses to take preparatory measures and adaptation actions. Better understanding at local and regional levels of the environmental processes and conditions that will be affected by changes in climate and hydrology which will effect daily life in Arctic communities including traditional fishing, hunting and herding.
  • It is especially important to clarify changes and effects on the marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, e.g. new species moving into warming Arctic waters and die-offs of existing species. Some of the world largest fisheries are in sub-Arctic areas. We currently do not have a clear understanding of the combined effects of changes in temperature, ocean acidification and pollutants on species composition and future fisheries.
  • The change in climate and hydrology will be accompanied by new vectorborne diseases in the North that will affect the people living there. Science will have to clarify how best to cope with this new situation. There is increasing evidence for human health effects from contaminants, climate change and dietary changes. New research must identify precautionary actions.
  • Securing and improving existing observation networks to provide necessary data from remote areas. This is especially important in monitoring Arctic marine and terrestrial areas and the run-off from Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. The network of in-situ observation stations needs to be improved to document both linear and non-linear (extreme) changes. Some Arctic countries and the European Union have over recent years allocated some funding to these priority areas, but it is insufficient to provide all the data needed. However, Arctic and non- Arctic countries must also make substantial contributions.

LARS-OTTO REIERSEN is the Executive Secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Secretariat.

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