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Arctic Ocean: “Mare incognitum”

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world's northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen hosts the world’s northernmost marine lab. (Quaile, 2007)

As I continue to prepare for my trip to Svalbard and the Arctic waters around the archipelago, into the Polar Night, the title of a website strikes me as particularly appropriate: Mare Incognitum  is the umbrella title for a group of Arctic research projects, including the one I will be joining this weekend at the harbour of the Arctic research base at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen. The title was chosen to reflect the group’s view of the Arctic as “one of the least known marine ecosystems of the planet”.

Date

January 8, 2015 | 3:56 pm

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Unlocking secrets of the polar night

 

Arctic Twilight (Pic: I.Quaile, Tromsö 2014)

Arctic Twilight (Pic: I.Quaile)

During visits to Arctic research sites in summer, I have experienced first-hand the energy and inspiration that comes from around-the-clock light. Who wants to go to sleep with the sun shining at midnight and land, sea and sky awash with changing waves of blue, grey, pink and gold Arctic light?

But what happens up north during the dark winter months? It is hardly surprising that summer is the season when scientists collect most of their data. There is a huge lack of information about Arctic ecosystems during the long polar night.

This is especially the case when it comes to marine ecosystems. Experts at UiT, the Arctic University of Norway, based in Tromsö, are trying hard to make up for that. UiT is the northernmost university of the world. It says its location on the edge of the Arctic defines its mission: to research into the region, which is of increasing global importance. That includes the impacts of climate change, the exploitation of Arctic resources and environmental threats. And that doesn’t stop with the onset of winter.

UiT Tromsö, the world's northernmost university. (Pic I.Quaile 2014)

UiT Tromsö, the world’s northernmost university. (Pic I.Quaile 2014)

Investigating polar nightlife

Polar Night Biology is one of UiT’s special research focuses. Until recently, the prevailing view was that the polar night was devoid of biological activity. But this was based on a lack of data and research, say the Tromsö experts. Extreme conditions, with darkness, cold and widespread ice make access much harder and riskier in winter. Some newer research expeditions into the polar night have produced results which challenge our understanding of Arctic marine organisms and ecosystems, say Stig Falk-Petersen, Professor of Arctic and Marine Biology at UiT,  and his colleagues. There is plenty of biological activity in the far north of the planet all the year round. We need to understand how the Arctic ecosystem functions in winter if we are to understand the impacts of climate change on it. “Polar-night ecology of Arctic marine systems is a new area of research with the potential for radically altering our fundamental perception of the current state of the Arctic marine ecosystem, mechanisms governing ecosystems processes, and how climate change in the region will affect ecosystem structure and function”, says the UiT website.

What life goes on beneath the Svalbard sea ice? (Pic I.Quaile)

What life goes on beneath the Svalbard sea ice? (Pic I.Quaile)

So how are warmer air and ocean temperatures and the decline of Arctic sea ice affecting organisms that normally live under it, or are dependent on it in some way or other, at this time of year? And what impact will that have on the whole food web in which they play a role?

Next week, Falk-Petersen will be heading a scientific boat expedition into the Arctic waters off northern Svalbard. Ahead of this year’s annual Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsö, I have been invited to join him and his researchers, as they try to find out more about Arctic marine organisms and ecosystems during the polar night.

I hope you’ll join us too, here on the Ice Blog for daily updates. Watch this space! We will be sailing on the university’s research vessel, the RV Helmer Hanssen. It’s currently heading across from Tromsö to Spitsbergen, where we’ll be joining the crew. You can track the ship’s progress here.

Date

January 6, 2015 | 3:47 pm

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UN expert: Santa on Arctic watch

 

Still snow for Santa and friends on Svalbard! (Pic: I.Quaile)

Still snow for Santa and friends on Svalbard! (Pic: I.Quaile)

As we come to the end of what looks set to be one of the warmest years on record, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the impact on the Arctic. Traditionally, in my home regions of the world in Germany and in Scotland, a lot of people look up to the snowy north with Santa Claus and the reindeer hopefully just around the corner. Here in Bonn, I recently hosted the latest edition of Deutsche Welle’s environment radio show Living Planet. One of my interview guests was Bradnee Chambers, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, CMS, also known as the Bonn Convention. Towards the end of the interview, looking back over the wildlife year, I asked Bradnee how things were looking for the species that live up in Santa’s home, the High North, either all year round or just for some parts of the year. This is what he told me:

“We recently had our Arctic congress in Trondheim, Norway, and a report was released on Arctic biodiversity. It’s showing a lot of issues. Polar bears are being affected by a decrease in sea ice, and the report says in the next few decades we can expect a decline of over 35 percent in polar bears, we’re seeing a decline in the wetland systems up there, 50 percent of the wetlands have disappeared in the last decade in the Arctic. We’re seeing species like the ivory gull being affected. With the decline in the ice coverage in the Arctic we’re also going to see a lot more development, a lot more drilling, and this is going to affect the pristine Arctic waters that have been pretty much left untouched from development. And I’m afraid in general we are going to see a lot more impacts, as we see the Arctic change and transportation routes open up”.

Iceblogger: Will Santa still find his own transportation route on his sleigh down to us this Christmas?

Yes, I’m sure Santa will still find his way down from the Arctic to bring lots of happiness to all the children around the world. But I’m sure he’s watching out at the same time to see that the place where he lives is not going to be degraded or decline any further than it has in the last few decades!

iceblogger iq

The Iceblogger wishes you all happy holidays!

Here’s hoping Santa will have plenty of helpers with that mammoth task in the coming year.

Happy Christmas to all Ice Blog readers, enjoy your end of year break.

I will be backafter the holiday, as I prepare for a trip to Arctic Svalbard in January. More soon. Here is a Svalbard pic to keep you going in the meantime and, I hope, make you look forward to some icy blog posts to come, as you “chill” away the festive season!

svalbard from the air

Beautiful Svalbard from the air – in summer! (Pic: I.Quaile)

 

Date

December 23, 2014 | 1:34 pm

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Arctic investment: still a hot prospect?

 

Shipping in icy waters, Svalbard

Shipping in icy waters, Svalbard (Pic: I.Quaile)

As I mentioned in the last post, I talked to various people about the current state of interest in the Arctic, in connection with the ArcticNet conference on “Arctic Change” in Ottawa last week. I would like to share some of the insights I gained with you here on the Ice Blog. With a lot of concerned people still suffering from a kind of mental hangover after the two weeks of UN climate negotiations in Lima, let me also direct you to a commentary I wrote for DW: Lima: a disappointment, but not a surprise. If you expected any action at the meeting which might help stop the Arctic warming, you will have been highly disappointed. If, like me, you think the transition to renewables and emissions reductions we need have to happen outside of  and alongside that process, all day and every day, your expectations will not have been so high.

But back to the Arctic itself. With Canada coming to the end of its spell at the helm of the Arctic Council and preparing to hand over the rotating presidency to the USA at the end of the year, the annual conference organized by the research network ArcticNet was bound to attract a lot of interest. More than 1200 leading international Arctic researchers, indigenous leaders, policy makers, NGOs and business people attended the Ottawa gathering to discuss the pressing issues facing the warming Arctic.

Hugues Lantuit from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute is a member of the steering committee.  He’s an expert on permafrost and coastal erosion. He told me in an interview that the region had to prepare for greater impacts ,with the latest IPCC report projecting the Arctic would continue to warm at a rate faster than any place on earth. While the retreat of sea ice allows easier access for shipping and more scope for commercial activities, Lantuit is concerned about the thawing of permafrost, a key topic at the Ottawa gathering:

“An extensive part of the circumpolar north is covered with permafrost, and it’s currently warming at a fast pace. A lot of cities are built on permafrost, and the layer that is thawing in the summer is expanding and getting deeper and deeper, which threatens infrastructure.”

 

Scientists at measuring stations like the one I viisted at Zackenberg, Greenland, measure the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by melting permafrost.

Scientists at measuring stations like the one I viisted at Zackenberg, Greenland, measure the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by melting permafrost. (I.Quaile)

Northern communities worried

Residents of northern communities are concerned about the impact of melting permafrost on railways, landing strips and buildings. Lantuit and his colleagues have created an integrated data base for permafrost temperature, with support from the EU. At the Ottawa meeting, he and his colleagues worked on identifying priorities for research, taking into account the needs of communities and stakeholders in the Arctic.

Another key issue on the Ottawa agenda was coastal erosion. Sea ice acts as a protective barrier to the coast, preventing waves from battering the shore and speeding up the thaw of permafrost. With decreasing sea ice in the summer, scientists expect more storms will impact on the coasts of the Arctic. “In some locations, especially in Alaska, we see much greater erosion than there was before”, says Lantuit. This creates a lot of issues: “There is oil and gas infrastructure on the coast, villages, people, also freshwater habitats for migrating caribou, so the coast has a tremendous social and ecological value in the Arctic, and coastal erosion is obviously a threat to settlements and to the features of this social and economical presence in the Arctic.”

Bad news for furred and feathered friends

Amongst the participants at the conference was George Divoky, an ornithologist who has spent every summer of the past 45 years on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, in Arctic Alaska. Divoky monitors a colony of black guillemots that nest on the island in summer. His bird-watching project turned into a climate change observation project as he witnessed major changes in the last four decades:

“Warming first aided the guillemots (1970s and 1980) as the summer snow-free period increased. The size of the breeding colony increased during the initial stages of warming. Continued warming (1990s to present) caused the sea ice to rapidly retreat in July and August when guillemots are feeding nestlings, and the loss of ice reduced the amount and quality of prey resulting in widespread starvation of nestlings.”

The 2014 breeding season on Cooper Island had the lowest number of breeding pairs of Black Guillemots on the island in the last 20 years, Divoky says. Reduced sea ice is increasingly forcing polar bears to seek refuge on the island, eating large numbers of nestlings. Polar bears were rare visitors to the island until 2002.

A polar bear tries to get at a black guillemot nest site (Pic: George Divoky)

A polar bear tries to get at a black guillemot nest site (Pic: George Divoky)

The Arctic and the global climate

Divoky went to Ottawa to fit his research and experience into the wider context of climate impacts in the Arctic. Researching climate change and its effects are important but of little practical use if the research does not inform government officials and result in policies that address the causes of climate change, Divoky argues.

I asked Hugues Lantuit whether he thought the UN climate conference in Peru could achieve anything that would halt the warming of the Arctic. He said  reducing emissions and reducing temperature were the only way to reduce the thaw of permafrost. But he is quite clear about the fact that there is no mitigation strategy in terms of permafrost directly.  “You would have to put a blanket over the entire permafrost in the northern hemisphere. This is not possible.”

At the same time, he stressed the key role of the Arctic with regard to the whole world climate: “Permafrost contains a lot of what we call organic carbon, and that is stored in the upper part. And if that warms, the carbon is made available to microorganisms that convert it back to carbon dioxide and methane. And we estimate right now that there is twice as much organic carbon in permafrost as there is in the atmosphere”.

So far, the international community has not been able to take measures to break that vicious circle.

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

What happened to the Arctic gold rush?

Communities who live and companies that work in the Arctic have to focus on adaptation to the rapid change, says Lantuit. In his eyes, economic activity is increasing, posing new challenges for infrastructure and the environment.

Malte Humpert, the Executive Director of the Arctic Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Washington DC has a different view on the matter. He says while attendance at Arctic conferences and interest in the Arctic is still high, commercial activity has actually been cooling off. “We are seeing a slow-down of investment. Up to this point there has been a lot of studying, a lot of interest being voiced, with representatives from China or South Korea, Japan, Singapore or other actors, arriving at conferences, speaking about grand plans. But up to this point a lot of the talk has been just that.” A lot of activity has been put on hold, says Humpert. He says the “gold rush mentality we saw a few years ago” has weakened. “There was a lot of talk about Arctic shipping initially, then we had oil and gas activity in 2012, north of Alaska, then we had the discussion about minerals in Greenland. The question is now, with the oil price being down below 70$ a barrel, some political uncertainties over the Ukraine, involving the EU and Russia, how will that affect Arctic development?”

Humpert stresses the Arctic does not exist in a vacuum, but has to be seen within the global context. Sanctions on Russia because of the Ukraine crisis have created economic problems for Moscow and limited access to technology it might need for its Arctic activities. “Maybe Arctic development has been oversold and overplayed and will be more of a niche operators’ investment. One could definitely question if there will be this global push into the Arctic.”

Arctic development on ice

Humpert is skeptical that any major development will take place before 2030. He says developing the infrastructure in terms of ports and communications in the remote Arctic region would require billions of dollars of investment, and would have to be a very long-term proposition. It will also depend to a large extent on exactly how climate change affects ice conditions in the Arctic. Climate change can make the climatic conditions in the Arctic more variable. This means that for a temporary period, there might even be more ice, which would block transport routes.

The Arctic Institute says there has actually been a slow down this year in terms of navigation on the northern sea route (NSR) in particular: “The season just closed about a week ago. Last year we had 1.35 million tonnes of cargo being transported along the NSR, this year we had less than 700,000 tonnes, so an almost 50% decrease, just because there was more ice in the way”, says Humpert.

Whether slower development is good news or bad depends on your perspective. The lull in Arctic activity could pre-empt environmental degradation or destruction, says Humpert, and leave scope to consider development of the Arctic in what he calls a 21st century way. Instead of  “old-school” thinking about extracting minerals, oil and gas and increasing shipping, there could be a focus on bringing modern, high-speed communications, fiber optics and thinking about renewables, such as wave energy. This would benefit the small populations in the Arctic, the expert argues.

But from the viewpoint of a country like Russia, he adds, where 40 percent of your exports are generated above the Arctic circle, in terms of hydrocarbon resources, the slowdown in Arctic development because of the drop in oil prices and political tensions over Ukraine is very worrying.

So while these developments seem to have brought the Arctic a breathing space, ultimately, the commercialization of the region could be just a matter of time. Ottawa conference organizer Lantuit argues that there has always been activity in the high North. The priority now, he says, must be to ensure international cooperation and additional investment in protecting the environment and maintaining safety in a region where rapid change seems to have become the status quo.

 

Date

December 15, 2014 | 11:57 am

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From Alaska to Ottawa

Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA. Cooper Island is off the coast.(Pic: I.Quaile)

Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA

Ottawa has been the setting for “Arctic Change”, another major Arctic conference this week. It is organised by the research network ArcticNet. I was not able to attend, but have been interviewing various people for an article on DW about the meeting, and about what is happening in the Arctic at the moment. One of the people I spoke to was George Divoky, who went to the meeting to put his own work into context and get the “big picture” of how climate change is having an impact on the Arctic. George is the mainstay of Friends of Cooper Island

He has a bird research station on Cooper Island, off Barrow, Alaska. For 45 years, he has been there every summer, observing a colony of black guillemots, who breed there. As he told me when I first met him during a trip to Alaska in 2008, his ornithological observation widened out into an observation of climate change over the years, witnessing some dramatic changes. I would like to share his views with you here on the Ice Blog.

George Divoky and friends on Cooper Island (Pic: Divoky)

George Divoky and friends on Cooper Island (Pic: Divoky)

Iceblogger: Why are you attending the conference and what do you expect from it?

As someone who has spent the past 45 summers studying seabirds in the Alaskan Arctic, I am very interested in hearing the findings of arctic researchers working in other disciplines and geographic areas.

I expect to be brought up to date on the most recent findings of how warming and development is affecting the ecosystems and people of the Arctic.  The information I obtain allows me to put my work (which is on a single species breeding on one island) in a much larger context.

Has the Canadian chairmanship of the Arctic Council affected Canada’s interest in the Arctic? 

 I know little of the international politics of the Arctic but my feeling is that Canada has always had a major interest in the Arctic because of the extent of their arctic lands and the large number of villages and settlements. With all that is now going on in the Arctic, Canada’s chairmanship certainly provides an opportunity for the country to focus on the region even more.
Are there differences in attitudes to the Arctic in the various countries involved? US; Canada, Russia, Norway…? 

 I feel that the US (with the exception of the indigenous people who live there) tends to treat its small part of the Arctic as a place to exploit natural resources and conduct research while Canadians have a much more organic (holistic) approach to the region.  My impression is that is also true for Scandinavian countries.
What has been your experience of Arctic change on Cooper Island this year?

 The 2014 breeding season on Cooper Island had the lowest number of breeding pairs of Black Guillemots in the last 20 years.  Breeding success in 2014 was low as all of the younger siblings in then nests died from starvation during a major windstorm that occurred in August after ice retreat and parent birds could not find sufficient prey.  We also had more polar bears on the island and interactions with them than during the last few years.  Polar bears were rare visitors to the island until 2002.

What impacts of the above-average rise in temperature have you seen over your years on Cooper island?

Warming first aided the guillemots (1970s and 1980) as the summer snow-free period increased and was better suited for the 90 days it takes guillemots to breed. The size of the breeding colony increased during the initial stages of warming. Continued warming (1990s to present) caused the sea ice to rapidly retreat in July and August when guillemots are feeding nestlings and the loss of ice reduced the amount and quality of prey resulting in widespread starvation of nestlings. Reduced sea ice also forced polar bears to seek refuge on the island with large numbers of nestlings being eaten by bears.

Black guillemots, courtesy of George Divoky.

Black guillemots, courtesy of George Divoky.

How serious is the problem of thawing permafrost?

 Thawing of permafrost has the potential to drastically change terrestrial ecosystems due to changes in drainage and plant communities.  The large shorebird and waterfowl populations breeding on the tundra require large areas of ponds and lakes for breeding.  Melting permafrost is allowing water to drain from the surface decreasing the extent of aquatic habitats while increasing the depth for root growth which facilitates shrubs replacing tundra plants.

Do you have a sense that there is a “rush for the Arctic’s resources” or is this just media hype?

It is clear to me that there is a rapidly increasing interest in arctic resources from government and industry.

Where should the priorities of Arctic research and Arctic policy  be in coming years?

While there will certainly be increased research in the Arctic in coming years I think it is important to realize that just because humans know more about a region or ecosystem it does not necessarily follow that they will be any better at protecting it from impacts – or likely to do so.  Pre-development ecological research is something most governments feel they must do to satisfy concerns about environmental degradation, but the ways in which that research can limit the effects of the post-development degradation – or assist in mitigating that degradation – is unclear.  Similarly, researching climate change and its effects are important but of little practical use if the research does not inform government officials and result in policies that address the causes of climate change.

With the climate conference going on in Peru – do you have the feeling the world takes the changes in the Arctic seriously? 

 I feel that the entire issue of current and predicted climate change is now being taken more seriously and, as a result, there is more focus on what is occurring in the Arctic since people and government now see the changes in the Arctic as being less removed from their own experience.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Arctic? 

 I am not optimistic that what used to be considered the “Arctic” will persist into the future.  The Arctic where I do research now bears little resemblance to the Arctic I first went to in 1970.  With models showing summer sea ice may soon disappear and predictions for increasing temperatures and development, it is likely that current and future generations of researchers will also be taken aback with the pace of change during their time in the region. Clearly, the Arctic as a geographic region will persist but the characteristics that are evoked by the word “arctic” (i.e. snow and ice dominated landscapes far from human industrial development) will no longer apply to the region.   And, of course, the biota adapted to the arctic ecosystems of the past will have very uncertain futures given the pace of change.

What will it look like in 20, 30, 50 years? 

 Much of the Arctic became technically subarctic during the last 20 years.  At least for the near future, winters will always be cold in the Arctic so some seasonal snow and ice cover will be present but the annual period when snow and ice are present will decrease. The rate at which these changes will take place is unclear as an Arctic that is ice free in summer (and losing land ice in Greenland) might cause more rapid changes.

Can anything happen to save it?

 I was very lucky to be able to be in the Arctic in the late 20th Century but it now seems clear that with the projected increases in atmospheric CO2 and resulting increases in temperatures and ocean acidifcation that the Arctic (as well as many of the earth’s natural areas) could be unrecognizable by the middle of the 21st Century.

Date

December 11, 2014 | 4:24 pm

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