Ministers from 18 nations and representatives from Arctic indigenous groups on Friday called for increased efforts for international scientific collaboration in the Arctic.
The officials also acknowledged the effects of global warming in the rapidly changing Arctic through a joint statement. However, the statement sidestepped attributing the warming to human activities.
“We strongly note the need for increased effort and urgent attention supporting further international scientific collaboration focusing on the warming trend in the Arctic,” conveys the nonbinding joint statement, issued following the second Arctic Science Ministerial meeting. The meeting, held in Berlin on 25–26 October, followed an initial Arctic Science Ministerial meeting that was held in Washington, D. C., in September 2016.
“This [warming] trend is progressing fast, with widespread environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts in the Arctic and other regions worldwide,” the statement continues.
The text indicates that through the ministerial meeting, countries and indigenous groups are moving forward on collaborative efforts in sustaining and strengthening Arctic observations; identifying risks and minimizing impacts of climate and global changes on the environment, infrastructure, and local and indigenous communities in the Arctic; and understanding regional and global dynamics of changes in the Arctic.
The statement also recognizes the importance of indigenous and local community knowledge in understanding changes in the Arctic. It states that “Indigenous Peoples should be involved as appropriate—as they are in this Ministerial discussion—in the assessment and definition of Arctic research priorities.”
National Commitments to the Arctic
Some parties at the ministerial meeting also emphasized their national initiatives related to Arctic research. U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) director France Córdova, the head of the U.S. delegation to the meeting, noted, for instance, that NSF is moving forward with its Navigating the New Arctic program. The program is one of 10 “Big Ideas” unveiled by NSF in 2016, and the agency on 25 October announced that it is seeking proposals from Arctic researchers who’d like to use the $30 million currently slated for the program.
Carlos Moedas, commissioner for research, science, and innovation at the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), said that the EU is investing 70 million euros in Arctic research and innovation over the next 2 years through its Horizon 2020 program. Additionally, he said that 35% of a proposed 100-billion-euro follow-on program, Horizon Europe, would go toward climate-related activities.
Benefits Include Improved Forecasting
Timothy Gallaudet, the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a member of the U.S. delegation to the ministerial meeting, told Eos that he has a positive reaction to the meeting and statement.
He said that the international commitment to advance Arctic observations is “terrific” and that it will help to improve the forecasting of hurricanes, droughts, and severe winter weather.
Gallaudet noted there are additional benefits in working on Arctic issues with other countries, including Russia and China, which may have tense relationships with the United States on other issues. “If they are willing to work well with us, even though there may be other areas where we might disagree, it certainly is beneficial to our country to not have tension up there” in the Arctic, he said.
References to Climate Change
Regarding climate change, the statement notes that “ecosystems and human communities in the Arctic are already experiencing the impacts of global changes” and that “global warming is the main cause of the well-documented decline of Arctic sea-ice extents and thickness, and of the increase in mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet.”
The document does not mention the cause driving climate change, although a 6 October report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that “human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.”
Gallaudet told Eos that he is focusing on what is in the ministerial statement rather than what’s not there. “I’m not going to debate what’s not there. I think what’s there—the commitment to cooperation in Arctic observing and prediction—is positive. We have a mission to do this. So, having international support and engagement is good. An agreement, a statement, is better than no statement. So, I focus on the positive of what is there.”
A Recommitment to Investing in Arctic Science
Another U.S. delegation member, Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent agency based in Arlington, Va., said that the results of the meeting are “less about the statement and more about the commitment that these countries are making to the investment in Arctic research, Arctic cooperation and collaboration, and how that will benefit the decision makers, be they in government or in the private sector.”
She added that “there was recognition [in the statement] that climate change is impacting everything and that there is an urgency around knowing not only how it’s changing but how society can prepare for the change ahead.” In light of that recognition, “I think the statement is fine,” Ulmer said.
The ministerial meeting represents “a reawakening and recommitment to why the investment in Arctic science is of value to society,” she said. “There was a fair amount of what I would describe as a call to action for urgently trying to address the problems” in the Arctic, including coastal flooding and thawing permafrost. That call to action resonates around the globe because of “the Arctic’s reduced ability to act as the air conditioner for the planet,” she said.
Consensus and Agreement
Other Arctic experts also said the meeting and statement represent a positive move for action. Larry Hinzman, U.S. delegate to the International Arctic Science Committee, which provided input to an Arctic science forum that preceded the ministerial meeting, told Eos that he was “really pleased and surprised at the level of consensus and agreement” at the ministerial meeting.
“All nations are very concerned about the rates of change, the consequences, and implications. All nations are very concerned about their impacts to the Arctic ecosystems and to the Arctic indigenous people and all nations are concerned about also the implications and the consequences to the nations in more temperate regions,” said Hinzman, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Regarding attributing climate change to human activities, Hinzman said that “there had been discussions about not just understanding, not just observing, but also mitigation. I think there is general consensus that we have to address not just the implications but also the cause.”
“The Ball Is Starting Rolling”
Antje Boetius, director of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, said she was disappointed that the ministerial statement didn’t mention the causes of climate change. “I’m frustrated that we still have to take tours around the truth and frankness of speech,” Boetius, who spoke at an official press briefing following the ministerial meeting, told Eos.
However, she said the meeting and statement are positive steps. “No one is denying that the Arctic is changing at an absurd pace and that this is threatening too many people,” she said. With this meeting, “my optimistic feeling is that the ball is starting rolling, though it might be too slow.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer