Researchers from NASA's ICESCAPE mission in the Arctic | Flickr/gsfc
Most people don't think about the Arctic in their daily lives until the polar vortex descends upon them. But, displaced polar vortexes may become the "new normal" due to climate change, according to researchers, and the same processes that contribute to their occurrence have also been causing Arctic ice to disappear at an unprecedented rate.
The rapid warming in the Arctic is creating novel problems for scientists and policy-makers, said three experts who spoke at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy held 1-2 May in Washington, D.C. These problems include a newly-opened, largely-uncharted sea, species facing a rapidly changing environment, challenges in natural resource development, and health and safety impacts on the Arctic region's 4 million residents.
"What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," said David Hik, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, Canada, and president of the International Arctic Science Committee, as he showed a slide describing global climate feedback loops. As Arctic ice melts, less sunlight is reflected away from the earth, causing the ocean to absorb more heat, which is eventually released back to the atmosphere, causing more Arctic ice to melt. These and other processes have caused the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, a process called "Arctic Amplification." Researchers think these processes are also contributing to more frequent extreme weather events, including increasing waviness of the polar vortex, which sends cold air beyond its usual boundaries, Hik said.
"Even a decade ago, we wouldn't have predicted" how rapid the warming and sea-ice melting have been, Hik said. Satellite surveys estimate that the extent of Arctic sea ice has decreased 50 percent in the past 30 years, and the total volume of ice has decreased by 75 percent. "This really is a one-way trip — it's difficult to see how these processes could be reversed in a short time," he said.
In 2015, the United States, represented by the Department of State, will rotate into a two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The intergovernmental forum was created in 1996 to facilitate coordination among the eight countries that directly border the Arctic and six indigenous peoples' organizations, with additional participation by other interested states. That will give the United States an opportunity to have more influence on the direction of the council's work by setting its themes and tone, said Michael Young, Arctic Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Some ideas that the U.S. delegation is considering championing include promoting the use of renewable energy in remote Arctic communities, providing better communications and information technology, and improving access to clean water and sanitation, Young said.
These projects could help people in these communities while also providing environmental benefits. For example, replacing the diesel fuel that most Arctic communities use to provide electricity and heat with renewable energy sources would reduce the significant expense of shipping the fuel, Young said. And, it would reduce the amount of black carbon and carbon dioxide emitted there that contributes to ice melting and climate change.
The melting Arctic ice is bringing great opportunities as well as great challenges in addition to climate change impacts, said John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. Much of the Arctic is made up of shallow water (about 30-50 meters or 100-165 feet deep) above continental shelf. Only the center is deep ocean. As a result, the Arctic coastal states may delimit their "extended continental shelf" areas beyond the current 200-mile exclusive economic zone, Farrell said, in accordance with the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a result, "it's possible that much of the Arctic Ocean sea floor will end up in one or another of the Arctic coastal states' extended continental shelf areas," Farrell said. He noted, however, that of the five coastal Arctic states, only the United Sates has yet to ratify that treaty, despite the many benefits it would convey.
Another issue is the development of Arctic natural resources, such as oil, gas, minerals and fish, which are increasingly accessible in a warming Arctic, and in greater demand globally.
Then there's the prospect of Arctic shipping. The route across the Arctic is a much shorter path between Europe and Asia than current ones, which is economically attractive, but barriers remain, Farrell said. For example, much of the sea floor is unmapped in that region, aids to navigation are minimal, search and rescue capabilities are limited, ports and harbors are few, and transportation links would need to be added to the new destinations.
Hik noted that two reports about the state of the Arctic and related research opportunities were released days before the Forum, including one by the National Academies of Science that he contributed to, and one by the Canadian Polar Commission, which have similar themes about the need to understand the environmental changes affecting the Arctic and finding ways to respond to them.
"We're seeing the same messages come through different channels," Hik said. "I think one of the opportunities for the Arctic Council…is to think about how we can really make sure we don't write reports that say the same thing again in another five or 10 years."
To ensure that progress is made, it will be important to keep researchers focused on the Arctic and communicating amongst each other about the most urgent research priorities so they can coordinate their efforts and resources, Hik said. Some have suggested an extension of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year in the form of an International Polar Decade, which has led to a proposed International Polar Partnership Initiative.
"It's really about building on the lessons of the last decade and recognizing the urgency of better understanding the changes that are taking place in the Arctic region and how they affect the rest of the planet," Hik said.