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Arctic Council – 20 years in a warming world

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When Norwegian polar explorer Helmer Hanssen travelled in the early 20th century, the Arctic was a very different place. Statue in Tromso, close by Arctic Council headquarters. (I.Quaile)

20 years does not really seem like a long time. But when it comes to climate change in the Arctic, the last 20 years have brought more change than centuries gone by.

After the warmest winter in the Arctic since records began, the sea ice has declined to its second-lowest level ever. And the “second-lowest” tends to divert attention from the fact that the sea ice cover has dwindled to nearly 2.56m sq km less than the 1979 to 2000 average. That’s the size of Alaska and Texas combined.

Julia Gourley, US Senior Arctic Official, has a background in environment policy. (Courtesy Arctic Council)

Julia Gourley, US Senior Arctic Official, has a background in environment policy. (Courtesy Arctic Council)

So the Arctic Council is celebrating its twentieth birthday at a time when concern over the impacts of planetary warming on the high north could hardly be greater.

I had the chance to interview Julia Gourley, the US Senior Arctic Official on the telephone ahead of the birthday. The US, of course, currently holds the two-year chairmanship of the body. I asked her how the Council had changed over the past 20 years.

“In the early days the Arctic state focused almost exclusively on environmental protection and science issues. But over the 20 years the countries have shifted the focus a bit. Certainly we still spend a lot of time trying to understand the environmental change that’s been going on. We spend much more time now on sustainable development issues, which in the Council generally refer to issues that affect the people of the Arctic, in particular the indigenous people. We’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the people who live there and the challenges they face.”

And those challenges are increasing all the time, especially because of the rapid pace of climate change.

Melting ice, easier access

The increase in human activity, as remote Arctic regions become more easily accessible has turned protecting the region into a whole new ball game. Gourley cites cruise ships, offshore oil and gas development , fishing and shipping as issues which have moved up the agenda.

Clearly, this means more work for the Arctic Council – and has also brought a lot more global interest in the region:

“We have 32 observer entities now, 12 of whom are countries. There are many more in the queue that are seeking observer status. What happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet, so countries all over the world are becoming interested in the region”.

Easier access, more traffic in the high north (I.Quaile)

Easier access, more traffic in the high north (I.Quaile)

With a big player like China taking a huge interest in the Arctic and looking to establish ports and secure its own access to the region, and political tensions between some of the Council members, such as Russia and the EU or the USA itself, the shadow of conflict always seem to be lurking in the background. Gourley is keen to play this aspect down. She stresses the key role of the Council in keeping the Arctic peaceful and encouraging cooperation. The USA, she says, welcomes the increasing interest by non-Arctic states – although, she adds, each of the Arctic states has their own views on that.

“We feel like we have a lot to learn as a group of Arctic states still about how the Arctic affects the rest of the world, and the more countries that are in the room listening to the discussion and learning from it and can contribute to it, the better. So we encourage non-Arctic countries that have particular expertise, to contribute to the work of the council – the scientific work, the technical work, economic work.”

Norwegian naval patrol boats in Tromso harbour (I. Quaile)

Norwegian naval patrol boats in Tromso harbour (I. Quaile)

Shared responsibilities

When it comes to regulating activities in the Arctic, the Council itself is not a regulatory body, but it contributes expertise to others.

“When it comes to shipping, the International Maritime Organisation is the regulatory authority all over the planet. But the Council has a strong interest in shipping in the Arctic, and so the Council has done some seminal work on the Arctic shipping situation, including a very important piece of work in 2009 called the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. That was the first time anyone in the world had looked deeply into the state of shipping in the Arctic in the face of climate change and reducing sea ice. That study is still cited today”.

When it comes to regulating offshore activities like mining and fishing, the Arctic states also have their own regulatory regimes, “ so it’s sort of a mix of regulatory activity by lots of different entities”, Gourley explains.

Arctic shipping needs regulation (I.Quaile)

Arctic shipping needs regulation locally and globally (I.Quaile)

The US Arctic representative is bound, of course, to take up a diplomatic stance. But while she stresses the Council’s efforts to keep tensions low and foster cooperation rather than conflict, she does make one qualification:

“The tensions in other parts of the world haven’t affected the work of the Council. That said, of course we all have our own national views about a lot of the issues that face the Arctic. But as to working together as a group of eight countries, together with the observer states and NGOs, it really has worked quite well. We’ve managed to carve out a space that we can work in collaboratively. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. As things change in certain parts of the world it’s not easy to predict what could happen in the Arctic. But at least up to this point, we’ve been able to work together quite well.”

Balancing act

Presumably, with climate change having such a strong and rapid impact on the Arctic, there are bound to be increasing differences of opinion when it comes to striking a balance between preserving the Arctic as it is on the one hand, and on the other developing commercial and industrial activities. The US representative was quite realistic on this one:

“Yes, that’s a real tension. I think that chapter of the Arctic story is still being written. Each Arctic state comes at those questions in their own waters and their own exclusive economic zones differently, and each country’s regime is slightly different. So it’s hard to say there’s a single answer to how we resolve those questions. But it is something that is very real. It’s of concern in particular to a lot of Arctic indignous people, who want to live traditionally but also realize that modernity is moving into their world and in some cases economic development is very necessary to create good jobs and include living conditions. So it is a very real, very alive debate.”

Indeed. The Arctic conundrum in a nutshell.

Arctiv development means jobs for the next generation. But can the fragile environment cope? (I.Quaile)

Arctiv development means jobs for the next generation. But can the fragile environment cope? (I.Quaile)

Tackling black carbon

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – and pollution produced in the rest of the world doesn’t stay out of the Arctic.

While the UN has its own body tasked with combating climate change, there are other climate-forcing agents which affect the Arctic particularly strongly, such as black carbon or soot. The Arctic Council sees this as an area where it has a key role to play:

“Black carbon itself is not part of the UNFCCC, so it’s not part of any global regulatory regime. So we are working in the Council on ways to reduce black carbon emissions voluntarily. So I think that’s going to have some very positive results.”

At the end of our talk, I wanted to know whether optimism outweighed concern or vice versa when it comes to the future of the Arctic in our warming world. The answer didn’t surprise me. But the underlying sentiment that in spite of all the tension in the world and the feeling that climate change is gathering momentum and happening ever faster, we all have to pull together, is a message I can subscribe to:

“I think I feel optimistic in a way. Certainly, the melting that’s happening in the Arctic is potentially hugely problematic for the world. I think the science is pretty clear on that front. And it’s not going to change overnight. Even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented right away, it’s a long time before the Arctic environment can stabilize. But when we have countries working together, if we can keep the conversation going, and we can encourage all of us in the Arctic and Arctic observer states, to work together to keep the conversation going, even if it’s slow, and to keep communication lines working, I think we do have room to be optimistic about that area of the world.”

The next 20 years are not likely to be less challenging than the last for the Arctic Council. On the contrary. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck – and happy birthday.

 

 

 

 

Date

September 19, 2016 | 1:37 pm

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Happy Birthday Koldewey Station

Iceblogger interviews a scientist outside Germany’s Koldewey Station, back in 2007. (Pic: I.Quaile)

25 years ago, Germany set up its own Arctic research station in the tiny settlement of Ny Alesund, in the Svalbard archipelago.

Today, 11 countries run research stations there. Arctic research is a very international operation, and countries share the facilities available in Ny Alesund, one of the northernmost settlements in the world. Germany and French now run a joint station, known as the AWIPEV station, after the polar institutes of the two countries. The rest is in this picture gallery, which I put together  to mark the station’s “silver jubilee”.  It combines pictures from several visits I made to the station in recent years and some background about what happens up there in the “high north”.

25 years of German research in the Arctic.

View from Mount Zeppelin over the Kongsfjord, Svalbard, above Ny Alesund research village. (Pic. I.Quaile)

 

 

Date

August 15, 2016 | 11:03 am

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Earth Day, Climate pact signing – and the Arctic?

Arctic Twilight (Pic: I.Quaile)

A glimmer of light for the Arctic? (Pic: I.Quaile, Arctic Norway)

How are you feeling this Earth Day? In some ways it could mark a turning point for the planet, with some 165 countries signing the Paris climate treaty at UN headquarters in New York. But, as, always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. And so far, I’m not sure it is quite tasty enough.

The trouble is, signing agreements alone is not enough. They have to be turned into action. The world is heating up way too fast, and the transition to an emissions-free world is far too slow. Yes, we can do it, I am convinced. But as well as the political will to sign an agreement, we need the political will to implement measures which will be unpopular with businesses and consumers because they mean major changes to how we work, trade and live.

In the meantime, the Arctic is facing a decline in sea ice that could equal or even beat the negative record of 2012.
Sea ice physicists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), have evaluated current satellite data on the thickness of the ice cover. The data show that the Arctic sea ice was already extraordinarily thin in the summer of 2015 and comparably little new ice formed during the past winter. Speaking at the annual General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, AWI sea ice physicist Marcel Nicolaus said data collected by the CryoSat-2 satellite revealed large amounts of thin ice that are unlikely to survive the summer.

Cold polar water absorbs CO2 faster and becomes more acidic. (I Quaile

Arctic ice – dwindling away (Pic: I.Quaile)

Hard to forecast

Predicting the summer extent of the Arctic sea ice several months in advance still poses a major challenge to scientists and meteorologists. Between now and the end of the melting season, the fate of the ice will ultimately be determined by the wind conditions and air and water temperatures during the summer months. However, conditions during the preceding winter lay the foundations.The AWI scientists say this spring, conditions are as “disheartening as they were in 2012”, when the sea ice surface of the Arctic went on to reach a record low of 3.4 million square kilometres.

At the end of March, the Arctic sea ice was at a record low winter maximum extent for the second straight year, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and NASA. Air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean for the months of December, January and February were 2 to 6 degrees Celsius (4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in nearly every region.

This year’s maximum winter extent was 1.12 million square kilometers (431,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred last year.

The September Arctic minimum began drawing attention in 2005 when it first shrank to a record low extent over the period of satellite observations. It broke the record again in 2007, and then again in 2012. The March Arctic maximum tended to attract less attention until last year, when it was the lowest ever recorded by satellite.

Ice conditions “catastrophic”

Recently, here on the Ice Blog, I published an account by Larissa Beumer, one of a team of Arctic experts on board the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, which has been checking the ice conditions the Arctic archipelago of Spitsbergen. From the ship, she told me the ice conditions were “catastrophic and way outside of normal variations”. She reported transport problems, with many of the usual routes inaccessible by dog sled or snow mobile. She talked of a lack of ice in places where navigation is usually impossibly up to June or July.

Ice and open water. (Nick Cobbing, Greenpeace)

Ice and open water, photographed by Nick Cobbing for Greenpeace, from the Arctic Sunrise, off Spitsbergen.

On thin ice

AWI scientist Marcel Nicolaus says new ice only formed very slowly in many regions of the Arctic, on account of the particularly warm winter.

“If we compare the ice thickness map of the previous winter with that of 2012, we can see that the current ice conditions are similar to those of the spring of 2012 – in some places, the ice is even thinner,” he told journalists at the Vienna Geosciences meeting.

Nicolaus and his colleague Stefan Hendricks evaluated the sea ice thickness measurements taken over the past five winters by the CryoSat-2 satellite for their sea ice projection. They also used data from seven autonomous snow buoys, which they placed on ice floes last autumn. These measure the thickness of the snow cover on top of the sea ice, the air temperature and air pressure. A comparison of their temperature data with AWI long-term measurements taken on Spitsbergen has shown that the temperature in the central Arctic in February 2016 exceeded average temperatures by up to 8 °Celsius.

Too hot for huskies?

Too hot for huskies? (Pic: I.Quaile, Greenland)

Breaking ice record

In previously ice-rich areas like the Beaufort Gyre off the Alaskan coast or the region south of Spitsbergen, the sea ice is considerably thinner now than it normally is during the spring. “While the landfast ice north of Alaska usually has a thickness of 1.5 metres, our US colleagues are currently reporting measurements of less than one metre. Such thin ice will not survive the summer sun for long,” Stefan Hendricks said.

The scientists say all the available evidence suggests that the overall volume of the Arctic sea ice will be decreasing considerably over the course of the coming summer. They suspect the extent of the ice loss could be great enough to undo all growth recorded over the relatively cold winters of 2013 and 2014. “If the weather conditions turn out to be unfavourable, we might even be facing a new record low,” Stefan Hendricks said.

So the AWI researchers fear we are going to see a continuation of the dramatic decline of the Arctic sea ice throughout 2016. From that point of view, the signing of Paris climate pact comes way too late. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon is stressing that this can only be the beginning, and that the mammoth task of decarbonising the economy still lies ahead. Here’s hoping the Paris Agreement will not just be a piece of paper which governments use to salve their consciences. Here in Germany, people are concerned that the government will not reach its ambitious climate targets at the present pace. Given that this country has already made remarkable progress in the transition to renewable energy for its electricity production, that is a worrying trend. And other major emitters still have even more to do if that two degree, let alone the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit to global warming is to be more than a very hot piece of pie in the steadily warming sky.

Date

April 22, 2016 | 10:53 am

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Arctic off limits for giant trawlers?

Skrei on offer at a fish stand in Arctic Tromso. (Pic I.Quaile)

This past winter, one of the favourite fish dishes being served up here in Germany was skrei, or Arctic cod. I had the feeling this was a new trend in this part of the world, and found myself wondering why there seemed to be more about and whether this could have anything to do with climate change and easier access to fish stocks which were further north before.

My research brought me very quickly to a campaign by Greenpeace, which is tackling this very issue. The website describes the increase in large-scale fishing as a “new threat” to the Arctic:

“Investigations by Greenpeace have shown industrial fishing fleets using destructive bottom trawling are invading previously pristine areas of the Barents Sea in the Norwegian Arctic.”

Greenpeace carried out an investigation focused on part of the Norwegian Barents Sea, including an analysis of vessel movements over three years to September 2015. I called up Frida Bengtsson in Norway, a Greenpeace campaigner and author of the report on the investigation, just published in March, entitled “This Far, no Further. Fishing in the Arctic.”

Frida Bengtsson

Greenpeace Arctic expert Frida Bengtsson. (Photo: courtesty of Greenpeace, for use on IceBlog)

She told me what she and her fellow conservationists had found out and why they are worried:
“What we’ve seen over the years is that the cod fishery that comes from Norway and provides markets in Europe and also travels to China, North and Latin America, has been expanding further north. So our research shows we are moving further and further north and into the Arctic. These areas have previously been covered by sea ice. Up to half the sea ice cover in the Barents Sea has disappeared since the 1980s”.

Given that the sea ice is disappearing anyway, I wondered whether it wasn’t a natural thing to catch some of the fish in the region:

“Research has just started to look at what’s below the sea ice on the seabed, and we’ve found things they haven’t found in other parts of the Barents Sea where extensive fishing has taken place for longer periods of time. For example, they have found sea pens, up to fifty years of age and up to two metres in height, which is very unique. So we’re calling for a precautionary approach, to not expand into these vulnerable areas but leave them alone and replace the protection the ice once offered with regulation.”

So in fact the problem is not the catching of a limited number of fish, but the effect of the large-scale industry on other species:

“We look at the size of the Barents Sea fishery. It’s very big. There are over 200 factory trawlers licensed to fish in the Barents Sea, and the footprint on the ocean environment is very large. We’re concerned that if this fishery is allowed to move into areas that haven’t been fished before, it will have a very negative impact. We’re mostly concerned about bottom trawling, where you use heavy trawl doors that can weigh several hundred kilos to put the net out and then drag it along the seabed with chains. The creatures on the seabed are very vulnerable and soft, and when they’re hit by these massive trawls they are destroyed.”

I asked what kind of preventive measures Bengtsson and her colleages would like to see?

“We think industry should move out of this area now, and we want to see Norway step up and protect these areas. We think that’s in line with what people generally want when it comes to Arctic protection. It would also mean Norway would meet their commitment towards the 2020 goals the world has set on protecting the world’s oceans.”

This far and no further? (Pic. I Quaile)

Arctic fishing: this far and no further? (Pic. I Quaile)

Alongside Norway, another major player in the region is Russia. I wondered if Greenpeace was also targeting Russian fishing?

“The Barents Sea fishery is shared between Norway and Russia. But most of the fishing activity actually takes place inside Norway. So we believe that working with the Russian fisheries, the markets that they sell to and the Norwegian government, we will find the right balance. But of course it’s also going to be important to see protection happening all over these vulnerable areas. And the Russians have already acknowledged the vulnerability for their part and have noted these as sensitive areas.

So far, the organization says it has had some interesting reactions both from consumers and the fishing industry to its report:

“It is very clear that people don’t consider that trawling for cod in the Arctic is something that is sustainable. And I think for the industry, it’s important to be at the forefront of sustainability. The indications we have from industry suggest they think it’s important and they want to take preventive measures. That is very encouraging, because I think it’s always good when we can work together. At the moment we’re seeing industry taking initiatives to find some solutions. That is interesting because it’s in line with the same pattern we’ve seen in other places, for example around the soya moratorium in Brazil. There, industry agreed to take preventive measures, to not expand soya production into the Amazon.”

Of course all this relies on pressure from consumers, using their purchasing power to make fishing companies do certain things, like stay out of certain areas. But can ordinary people find out fish is coming from an area of the Arctic it should not be coming from? Not so easy, it seems:

“Unfortunately, today that is very difficult for a consumer. But even so, it’s very important that you ask the question. If more and more consumers start asking where their fish comes from, that will lead to better labeling. We have seen initiatives in Europe where some fish is labeled, with catching area and the fishing boat, but of course that’s only a very small share. We would like to see that happening with the whole of the seafood market”.

Plenty of food for thought there, for anyone who eats fish as well as the industry that brings it from the ocean to the table.

Arctic fish and chips? Listen to my interview with Frida Bengtsson.

 

Date

April 19, 2016 | 11:57 am

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A letter from Svalbard’s dwindling sea ice

 

Greenpeace's Larissa Beumer on board the Arctic Sunrise in the Spitsbergen archipelago. (Pic: Nick Cobbing, courtesy of Greenpeace).

Greenpeace’s Larissa Beumer on board the Arctic Sunrise in the Spitsbergen archipelago. (Pic: Nick Cobbing, courtesy of Greenpeace).

The Arctic sea ice has reached its maximum winter extent for this season, and it was a record low, as reported here on the Iceblog.

The Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise is currently sailing in the Hinlopen Strait in the Arctic archipelago of Spitsbergen, checking out the ice conditions. Larissa Beumer is on board. I wanted to know what the ice situation was like, and she sent me this report. Photographer Nick Cobbing is also on board, so that means we can have a couple of his wonderful pics on the Iceblog. Thanks Nick and Greenpeace.

LARISSA BEUMER:  “The ice conditions up here vary considerably from year to year. But this year is really extreme. On the west coast, almost none of the fjords are frozen up. The only exceptions are Dicksonfjord and Van Mijenfjord (and that one isn’t frozen up as far as it “normally” is).

 On the east coast, there is no solid, stable ice, frozen through like it normally is. The ice there is moving a lot, it has often broken apart and been blown together again by the wind, so it’s not reliable. (And in general there is less ice there as well).

That means tourists and locals are very severely restricted in their activities. Dog sled and snowmobile tours normally mainly use the frozen-over fjords on the west coast. But this year, a lot of the usual main routes are not usable. That means some of the main destinations like Pyramiden (and Isfjord radio) can only be reached by taking major detours over the glacier systems. The east coast is another of the main destinations for snowmobile excursions. You can still get there quite well, but driving over the ice is more risky than usual. (One tourist group went through the ice this season, but nobody was hurt).

We sailed north along the west coast, then east along the north coast to the Hinlopen strait. We didn’t encounter any large stretches of ice masses anywhere on route. Normally, there is so much ice up there in winter that the route is only navigable from June or July.

Ice and open water. (Nick Cobbing, Greenpeace)

Ice and open water. (Nick Cobbing, Greenpeace)

Actually, in “normal” years, the pack ice extends down from the north to the northern coast of Spitsbergen right into summer. Now it’s just the bginning of April and the pack ice only starts much further north. Sailing to Nordaustlandet is normally still challenging in August, because of the ice conditions. This year, it’s more or less navigable already. It used to be that expedition cruises billed as “Circumnavigation Cruises” had to change their route because the ice in the north was still so thick they couldn’t get through. I think at the moment you could already do a circumnavigation without any problems.

The ice we can see is mainly fresh ice, one-year ice, with open water here and there and a lot of breaks in it. As I said before, it’s moving about, breaks and is pushed together again. As far as we can see, the thickness is relatively varied, but there is a lot of thin ice amongst it.

The current ice chart from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute shows that a lot of ice from the south has been pushed into the Hinlopen Strait by the wind over the last two days. All this ice just wasn’t there a few days ago. It comes from the pack ice in the north-east, towards Franz-Josef-Land. So it’s not ice that formed here.

So, all in all, it seems fair to say that this year the ice conditions up here around Svalbard are catastrophic and way outside of normal variation. Oscar, our polar-bear guide, says he has never experienced anything as bad as this in the 13 years he has being living here.

Larissa Beumer, on board the Arctic Sunrise, Spitsbergen.

 

Date

April 4, 2016 | 3:12 pm

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