Polar express: The bear and the ‘Maiden Fair’

Posted in: Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy

Dr Philippe Blondel is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics and Deputy Director of the Centre for Space, Atmosphere and Ocean Science, at the University of Bath.  

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. In recent news, Arctic warming impacting extreme weather in SE Asia (EOS, May 2019) joins with colder than usual weather in the US (UPI, November 2019), and predictions of a returning “Beast from the East” in the UK (BBC Newsround, September 2019). Measurements show that “Arctic warming will accelerate climate change and impact global economy” (Science Daily, April 2019). The most authoritative sources concur: “Climate change: Greenhouse gas concentrations again break records” (BBC News, November 2019), “We may be closer than we thought to Earth's dangerous tipping points” (New Scientist, November 2019).

Through my own research, I have witnessed some of the most obvious changes in the Arctic. The IPCC states that sea ice cover decreased by 6.15% per decade and its volume by 15.4%, contributing to 15% of global sea level rise. This is compounded by decreases in glaciers and ice caps (another 28%). These changes are expected to increase substantially over the next decades and physical models currently lag behind measurements, due to the rapidity of changes and data sparsity. This is where my own field of acoustics can help: by measuring changes in sounds across the Arctic Ocean, and in fjords and estuaries, we can monitor them at all depths, all spatial ranges and all timescales. This tells us how glaciers are melting and how fast; how animals are using sounds and adapting (or not) to change; how marine vegetation copes and how the Arctic compares to other parts of the world.

In late 2017, I was invited to co-chair the working group on Arctic Acoustic Environments created by the International Quiet Ocean Experiment. Our science plan was endorsed at the Arctic Observing Summit 2018 and we are now active in synthesising the different strands of information, planning a global ocean observing system for the Arctic, linking with local communities and stakeholders through associated programmes like the flagship European project INTAROS.

Beyond its direct influence on climate, less sea ice means easier access to Arctic resources. The current moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean is still valid for 16 years, but does not include other areas, in particular the coasts of individual Arctic states. Offshore exploration and potential drilling are regularly coming back into the news, motivated by the assessment that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas lie in the Arctic. New shipping lanes will cut transit times by up to 30% between key world markets, and some countries already plan to develop them (e.g. the “Polar Silk Route” of China’s white paper on Arctic Policy, January 2018). Other countries, like the UK, recognise the economic opportunities at the same time as the increasing risks to biodiversity and the connection between the Arctic and the rest of the world.

To illustrate these issues, let us look at a hypothetical container ship, the “Maiden Fair”. This ship would sail on a route optimised for transit time and fuel consumption, crossing across the Arctic or following the shores of different countries. The ship’s fumes will add greenhouse gases and other pollutants to the fragile atmosphere. Soot deposits on thinner ice will accelerate its melting. Underwater, propeller noise will be audible for kilometres more (because of the warmer waters) and it will combine with other ships, like in the North Sea, affecting marine life.

On its way, the “Maiden Fair” might pass the rusting wreck of a large cruise ship, and endangered polar bears scavenging its food supplies - oblivious to chemical spills (groundings in Antarctica show the clear risk, and retreating glaciers leave uncharted seabeds behind them, often with large outcrops). On the bridge, a radar shows the tall radio masts of the last Search and Rescue station before the open ocean. The radio officer contacts oil rigs further away, to check they were not affected by recent earthquakes in Greenland - events also on the increase as glaciers continue to melt. Though this is fiction, it's also a very real scenario.

The Arctic changes so fast it often leaves models behind, and more complex feedback loops become apparent. This is where researchers can help, assisting in evidence-based policymaking. The UN agreed Sustainable Development Goals, three of which are directly relevant to the Arctic: Climate Action (SDG-13), Oceans (SDG-14) and Life on Land (SDG-15). Network connections and reinforcing factors between SDGs show that SDG-14 should be a priority. Scientific support comes from key organisations: Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) and of course our IQOE Working Group, synthesising the latest findings at meetings like the Arctic Observing Summits, assisting the Arctic Council and biennial Arctic Science Ministerials (2016, 2018).

Policies from Arctic and near-Arctic states are varied. The UK’s Arctic Policy Framework (2013) was reassessed by its Environmental Audit Committee (2019), adding that “commercialisation of the Arctic” should remain aligned with the UN’s SDGs. US policies are expressed through different channels, like the Department of State’s Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs. In 2019, its Department of Defense highlighted the growing competition with China and Russia, an analysis shared by NATO. Canada’s policies are primarily geared toward its own Arctic communities, whilst China’s new Arctic policy (2018) focuses on the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (part of its global Belt and Road Initiative). Similarly, Russia is looking at the economic benefits of the new Arctic, particularly the Northern Sea Route, echoed by the UK’s Maritime 2050 Trade Route Map (2019). The EU is also very active, with an Integrated EU policy for the Arctic (2016) and many actions (2018).

Facts, research and policies are changing fast. Feedback loops; interconnected SDGs; biodiversity and economic interests; and nested national and international policies, combine to form a planet-size linked-rings puzzle. It is therefore essential that the latest scientific evidence backs the best practice in developing dynamic policies to mitigate the effects of climate change in the Arctic, and on the rest of the world.

Posted in: Energy and environmental policy, Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy


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  • Some reallʏ interesting info, well written and ցenerally user pleasant.

    • Thanks, Don! The latest news show there will be even less ice in the coming winter. "What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic": feedback effects are very likely to affect weather systems at our latitudes as the Arctic is changing increasingly fast. This has important geostrategic implications too, as the UK First Sea Lord recently discussed. "Interesting" times ...