Why a new “Arctic Circle” Forum?
While working on a story about the Arctic Council in the run-up to its next meeting in May, I was greatly interested by the announcement that there is to be a new global forum called the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, made the announcement this week at an event held by the National Press Club in Washington. On the Arctic Circle website, the new organization is described as “nonprofit and nonpartisan”. The mission is “to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic’s greatest challenges. We aim to strengthen the decision-making process by bringing together as many Arctic and international partners as possible under one large ‘open tent’. By facilitating circumpolar meetings of leaders across disciplines, we will identify truly sustainable development practices for the Arctic, the world’s last pristine environment”.
The background, of course, is the opening of the Arctic to shipping and commercial exploitation because of climate change. The organisers say the new open forum will help raise the profile of Arctic issues worldwide and discuss solutions “in a frank and collaborative manner”.
I met President Grimsson in January in what at first sight might appear an unusual location – the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi.
He actually has close ties to the emirate, and was there for “sustainability week” and the World Future Energies Forum. He explained to me then his interest in making it clear that the Arctic is not just of significance to the High North region and the countries around it, but the planet as a whole. So I am not surprised that he is spearheading an attempt to open the region to the influence of other countries. Iceland has also been conducting a lot of negotiations with China, including a new free trade agreement announced by the President this week. As reported on the Ice Blog and DW before, China is increasingly interested in getting a foothold in the Arctic.
Grimsson told Thomson Reuters the new forum was needed because “while most countries have a stake in the melting of Arctic ice, only eight – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – are members of the Arctic Council”. The intergovernmental group was established in 1996.
China, India and Singapore are amongst the non-Arctic states seeking observer status on the Arctic Council at a meeting to be held in Sweden next month. The new “Arctic Circle”, on the other hand, would be open to anybody: “concerned citizens, representatives of ngos, scientists, researchers alongside governments and corporations.”
The first meeting of the new forum will be held in Iceland in October. It remains to be seen who will sign up and how influential it will turn out to be. The formation of the group shows the Arctic’s rising significance on the international agenda. The question is which forum will turn out be the best placed to effectively protect the sensitive ecosystems and traditional lifestyles of indigenous groups in the Arctic at the time when international commercial interest is growing steadily. And with the burning of fossil fuels continuing to exacerbate climate change and no progress being made towards reducing emissions – who is to mediate in the conflict between those who want to profit from exploiting oil and gas resources in The Arctic and those who want to stop using it and shift to climate-friendly renewables? There are those who would like to do both. But as the saying goes, “you can’t have your cake and eat it” – or maybe you can’t have your ice and melt it?
DateApril 19, 2013 | 2:25 pm
Antarctic Peninsula is thawing faster
Ice in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula is now melting during the summer faster than at any time during the last thousand years, according to new research results. The scientists have reconstructed changes in the intensity of ice-melt, and the mean temperature on the northern Antarctic Peninsula since AD 1000, based on the analysis of ice cores.
According to the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the coolest conditions and lowest melt occurred from about AD 1410 to 1460, when mean temperature was 1.6 °C lower than that of 1981–2000. Since the late 1400s, there has been a nearly tenfold increase in melt intensity from 0.5 to 4.9%. The warming has occurred in progressive phases since about AD 1460, but the melting has intensified, and has largely occurred since the mid-twentieth century. The study concludes that “ice on the Antarctic Peninsula is now particularly susceptible to rapid increases in melting and loss in response to relatively small increases in mean temperature”.
Paul Brown of Climate News Network says the findings explain a series of sudden collapses of ice shelves in the last 20 years, which scientists studying them had not expected. He also quotes the researchers as saying the current melting could lead to “further dramatic events, making the loss of large quantities of ice on the Peninsula more likely, and adding to sea level rise”.
The study is also of interest against the background of the debate going on over the last 20 years on whether the Antarctic would gain mass through extra snow falling and so REDUCE sea level rise, or would lose ice because of higher sea and air temperature and so exacerbate the effect.
The scientists use a 364-metre ice core from James Ross Island to get in insight into both past temperatures and ice melt. Layers in the core show periods when summer snow on the ice cap thawed and then refroze. By measuring the thickness of the layers, they could tell how the history of the melting related to changes in temperature at the site over the last thousand years.
Lead author Dr. Nerilie Abram of the Australian National University and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said: “Summer melting at the ice core site today is now at a level that is higher than at any other time over the last 1,000 years. And whilst temperatures at this site increased gradually in phases over many hundreds of years, most of the intensification of melting has happened since the mid-20th centrtury.
Dr. Robert Mulvaney from the BAS, who led the drilling expedition and co-authored the paper said: “Having a record of previous melt intensity for the Peninsula is particularly important because of the glacier retreat and ice shelf loss we are now seeing in the area. Summer ice melt is a key process that is thought to have weakened ice shelves along the Antarctic Pensinsula leading to a succession of dramatic collapses, as well as speeding up glacier ice loss across the region over the last 50 years”.
The changes on the Antarctic Peninsula do not necessarily apply to other parts of Antarctica, such as the West Antarctic ice Sheet. Melting is also occurring there and could have an even greater risk of large-scale sea level rise.
Paul Brown from Climate News Network notes “it is not clear that the levels of recent ice melt and glacier loss in West Antarctica are exceptional or are caused by human-driven climate changes.”
Lead author Abram says: “This new ice core record shows that even small changes in temperature can result in large increases in the amount of melting in places where summer tempearatures are near to 0°C, such as along the Antarctic Peninsula, and this has important implications for ice instability and sea level rise in a warming climate”.
I interviewed Andrew Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation at the British University of leeds, on a major satellite sutdy of the polar ice melt towards the end of last year. It makes interesting listening to complement this latest development:
DateApril 16, 2013 | 12:43 pm
No Arctic Council meeting for Greenpeace North Pole trekkers
A group of young campaigners have been trekking to the North Pole this week, as part of the Greenpeace campaign to “Save the Arctic“. There are 16 people in the group, including four international youth ambassadors : Hollywood actor Ezra Miller, two Arctic Indigenous representatives and a young man from the Seychelles . I was hoping to be able to report here on the Ice Blog that they had met with members of the Arctic Council who were also to visit the North Pole this week. But for reasons yet to become clear, the meeting didn’t happen.
One of the explorers, Josefina Skerk, a 26-year-old member of the Sami Parliament in Sweden, had sent a letter to Gustaf Lind, Swedish chair of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials, requesting a meeting with the Arctic officials, when they heard they would be at the North Pole at the same time. Mr. Lind apparently accepted the invitation, but the meeting did not take place. There is an amazing multimedia website for the project, where you can follow the expedition and find out about the trekkers and their motives: Into the Arctic. One of the girls says her hands are freezing but her blood is boiling because the meeting didn ‘t work out. But you can see and hear all that for yourselves on the site.
The activists say “no one nation should own the Arctic or be allowed to exploit the melting Arctic sea ice, a crisis created by climate change, for more of the fuels that caused the melt in the first place”. The trekkers are carrying with them a time capsule that contains a declaration with 2.7 million signatures calling for the Arctic to be made a global sanctuary. Greenpeace says they plan to lower the capsule and a ‘Flag for the Future’ through 4.3 km of freezing water to the seabed beneath the North Pole.
Some of those signatures were collected here in Bonn, as reported on the ice blog and DW radio and online pages at the time:
DateApril 11, 2013 | 4:01 pm
Climate affects birds in Arctic Alaska
The report looked at 54 species and found that two, the gyrfalcon and the common eider are likely to be “highly” vulnerable to expected impacts. Seven species would be “moderately” vulnerable, and five species are likely to increase and benefit from a warming climate.
Arctic Alaska provides some of the most important breeding and stopping grounds for millions of birds from around the world. The region is also warming much faster than the rest of the globe.
The report, Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability of Breeding Birds in Arctic Alaska, co-authored by WCS Scientists Joe Liebezeit, Erika Rowland, Molly Cross and Steve Zack, details in-depth vulnerability assessments conducted on 54 species to help guide wildlife management in the region. The project was aided by the participation of more than 80 scientists who are experts on the species. The authors note that the assessments looked exclusively at the impacts of climate change experienced by breeding birds in Arctic Alaska, and not in other parts of their range.
“The primary value of this assessment is to tease out the underlying factors that make species more or less vulnerable to climate change,” said WCS Conservation Scientist and report co-author Joe Liebezeit. “Through this effort we can begin to prioritize subsequent management actions and identify data gaps. The results represent a starting point to help prioritize management actions and conservation planning efforts.”
The vulnerabilities were assessed using software developed by NatureServe that combines expert opinion of the sensitivity of a species to climate change (including traits like physiological tolerance to temperature change) and geospatial datasets of external factors including projected temperature and moisture changes across northern Alaska.
As Coordinator of the Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Greg Balogh looks at climate-driven changes. “This assessment tool melds computer modeling with expert opinion in a way not often realized,” said Balogh. “The insights and graphic depictions of climate change winners and losers is a real eye-opener. Land and resource managers would do well to pay attention to products like this as they think about how they conduct business in the future.” Among the commonalities seen among the more vulnerable species was a strong orientation to the coastline exposing them to climate-related changes in coastal disturbances linked to storms, erosion and ice cover. Generalist species (those that can adapt to a wide variety of conditions) were less affected and, in some cases, predicted to thrive in a warming climate.
Despite the extensive assessment carried out, the authors acknowledge that there is more work to be done.
“Our results tell only part of the climate change story for these species,” said WCS Conservation Scientist and report co-author Erika Rowland. “For example, several species rely on wetland habitats, which may dry out or shift locations in response to warming. Also, many species winter in places outside of Alaska and so climate change information from other regions will ultimately need to be woven into our understanding of vulnerability in Arctic Alaska for conservation planning and management.”
George Divoky, an ornithologist and climate observer who monitors black guillemots breeding on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the USA, has also been telling me how changes in the sea ice have been making life difficult for “his” birds this year. The ice has been breaking up massively and very early in the season.
“Having the ice be breaking up this early and to such an extent could mean that there will be open water north of Cooper Island much sooner than normal. If the ice is well offshore when guillemot eggs hatch in July, then parent birds will have a tough time finding food for young. In the short term it could also mean I will have problems getting out to the island by snow machine in early June.” There is more from George on the Friends of Cooper Island site.
More information on the current state of the Arctic ice, including fascinating videos on the NASA website.
DateApril 4, 2013 | 1:56 pm
Greener Arctic will speed up warming
New research predicts that rising temperatures will lead to a massive “greening” or increase in plant cover in the Arctic. In a paper published in Nature Climate Change on March 31st, scientists present new models projecting that wooded areas in the Arctic could increase by as much as 50 percent over the next few decades. They also show that this will accelerate climate warming at a faster rate than previously expected.
In the Ice Blog post of March 11th, A Greener Arctic in a Warmer Climate, I wrote about a study of satellite data showing there have already been considerable changes, with plants growing further north and reaching higher heights than previously in their present locations. The new work, funded by the National Science Foundation, models how the “greening” of the Arctic could continue and what effects it could have.
Richard Pearson, the lead author on the paper and a scientist at the American Museum of natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation says “such widespread redistribution of Arctic vegetation would have impacts that reverberate through the global ecosystem”. Once again, we have a piece of research demonstrating the worldwide significance of what is happening in the far north of the planet.
The models suggest there could be trees growing hundreds of miles north of the present tree line in Siberia. As well as changing living conditions for flora and fauna, the researchers draw particular attention to the feedback effects which would be produced by having a green rather than a white Arctic. The albedo effect would have the greatest impact, they say. The white snow reflects most of the radiation back to space. “Dark” areas, on the other hand, in this case trees or shrubs, would absorb more sunlight, leading to a further increase in temperature. For the Arctic, that would mean “the more vegetation there is, the more warming will occur”, according to the study. It is the same phenomenon observed when the increased melting of the sea ice gives way to darker water, which absorbs more heat.
You might wonder if the plant growth could offset this warming effect by absorbing atmospheric carbon. But this process happens too slowly for that, says co-author of the study Michael Loranty, from Colgate Unversity.:
“By incorporating observed relationships between plants and albedo, we show that vegetation distribution shifts will result in an overall positive feedback to climate that is likely to cause greater warming than has previously been predicted”, according to Wood Hole Research Center Senior Scientist Scott Goetz, another co-author.
The temperature in the Arctic is already rising at about twice the global rate.
DateApril 2, 2013 | 1:53 pm