The United Kingdom may not be an Arctic nation, but it has a unique perch on the front line of the dramatic change reshaping the polar north. The U.K. government now is preparing to unveil an Arctic policy framework, its own version of the strategy documents put forth by nations in the thick of decision-making over the resource scramble and imperative for Arctic protection. (See the U.S. version here.)
That’s why National Geographic went to London this week to convene the latest roundtable event in its Great Energy Challenge initiative. The initiative is sponsored by Shell, a company that is in the center of the Arctic debate. For our event, The Arctic: The Science of Change, we brought together about 50 scientists, academics, government officials, and representatives of industry, environmental groups and indigenous community organizations. The purpose: to discuss the central role of science in navigating decision-making on the rapidly changing Arctic. (See related video: Experts use three words to describe the Arctic at The Arctic: The Science of Change live event.)
It is clear that the loss of sea ice has opened up the prospect of new shipping routes, new access to oil, natural gas, and other resources, and new development. Science must guide policymakers as they seek to balance humanity’s needs with the need to protect the planet and its critical Arctic environment.
National Geographic Society has a long history of Arctic exploration, dating back to one of its founders, George Kennan, who documented his travels in Siberia in the 1860s, and the society’s support of Admiral Robert Peary’s landmark expedition to the North Pole in 1909. For the future of the Arctic, we believe the only way forward is by bringing people together for an honest, open, balanced, and multi-disciplinary discussion. Here are just a few of the views aired during our event Tuesday at The Royal Society in London.
Explorer Paul Rose, who just returned from leading a National Geographic expedition to survey ecosystems in Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic, serving as moderator for the evening: “When I think about the Arctic, it’s a wild place. There’s a sense of promise, and hope, and freedom and energy of the great unknown. We all know that in all of our lifetimes, the Arctic will change a lot. It may even become recognizable. So what is our vision for it? Is it some sort of gold rush… a mad dash for something where we don’t really know where we’re going with it? Or are we looking at total protection, so it’s a no-access zone for nothing at all? Or can we find a way to extract clean oil and gas and rare earths and minerals in balance with nature? Can we set an example for future generations and can we set an example to people who say it couldn’t be done?”
Jane Rumble, head of the polar regions department at the U.K. government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explained that the government’s Arctic “policy framework” is expected soon. It is not called a “strategy,” which might be looked upon by some Arctic nations as presumptious step by a nation that has no direct regulatory authority in the polar region, she said. But she affirmed the connection of the U.K. to the Arctic: “The environment in the Arctic relates to the environment here, there’s a lot of biodiversity links, a lot of climate links, and of course a long-term sustainable management issue.” She said the vision of the policy framework likely will be to work toward an Arctic that is “safe and secure.” One important challenge, she said, is to establish clearly what needs protecting in the Arctic. “Governments can look at how you go about it [the mechanisms for protection] but we need to know what exactly needs protecting and what are the threats that we’re trying to manage.”
Florian Stammler, senior researcher in social anthropology, the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, said he has worked 15 years in the Russian Arctic on indigenous communities and the interface with resource extraction in a changing Arctic. “For the residents, the Arctic is not a wild place. They have been witnessing how environmental, social, cultural, and economic changes have been going together all the time. In most indigenous societies there is no distinction, because the entire environment is animated, so everything is alive. The Earth has a soul.The rivers and lakes have souls. People have souls and non-human [beings] have souls… So when we talk about integrating different ways of knowing, I think that cooperation is a very crucial key word.” Showing a photo of reindeer herders in close proximity to a gas plant, he said, “The Arctic increasingly looks like a plural space of multiple livelihoods. It’s not only the emblematic polar bears and Arctic Ocean… it’s not only the sea ice. It’s different livelihoods and different cultures living together.”
Michael Macrander, chief scientist for Shell Alaska, said his company’s budget for science in the Arctic was greater than that of any single federal agency. “We do science because we need to. We need to do science to make responsible decisions and to inform them. At a most basic level, we are making very significant investments, and if we make those investments without a good understanding of the place we’re operating in, that’s not a good way to go. So there are all kinds of drivers for why and how we do science, but whether it’s internally for Shell, or externally for the stakeholder communities, it’s to be able to understand the place in which we are trying to operate, and understand the conditions and challenges that we will be working with.” He said Shell’s collaborative agreement with the North Slope of Alaska was an example of science serving as a “critical platform” for enaging stakeholders. “We provide funding and they provide the infrastructure and personnel to provide studies. The program is guided by a steering committee that is made up of people from each of the local villages. They identify the observations that are being made by people in the villages and identify the questions and help us to focus our studies. It’s an example of the importance of science in establishing the dialogue.”
David Vaughan, science leader of the British Antarctic Survey’s Polar Science for Planet Earth project, showed a short animation of the snow cover advance and retreat in the Northern hemisphere like this one from NASA. “If the Amazon is the lungs of the planet, then the polar regions are its twin beating hearts,” he said. Vaughan talked about how the Arctic, polar bears, and ice sheets had become iconic images for climate change. Beyond the hype embodied in some of the images, he said, “the changes that are occurring in the Arctic are profound… and to really understand how they influence the rest of the planet, we have to delve a little deeper.” He said he believed that the most significant gap in our current knowledge is a lack of understanding of permafrost. “It’s very tricky stuff–even driving vehicles across permafrost to take measurements of its temperature can be enough to change the local environment and make measurements differ. So establishing the changes in the Arctic permafrost is an extremely difficult process.” He said it will be important to see what the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (due next week) says on the subject. “It’s not just from the local perspective that we should be interested,” Vaughan said. “The loss of permafrost gives rise to those extremely vulnerable coastlines… and they also contain an essentially unmeasured amount of carbon in the form of methane…. a highly effective greenhouse gas. Our uncertainty is very high in this area.”
Daniel Kammen, founding director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory: “One part of the climate story I want to highlight is that when challenged in the climate skeptic world, one of the missing pieces is how do you tell the story of climate change in a way that is model- or theory-free and is irrefutable, and doesn’t take six hours or 1,000 pages…. What’s the most iconic version of that? It’s the 50 percent reduction of sea ice [since 1979.]” (See interactive map: “The Changing Arctic.”) “The reason this is so critical is that it is a visual record. It doesn’t rely on any of the models, it doesn’t relate to IPCC scenario XYZ… It simply shows with the raw data the variations.
“We don’t have versions this clear explaining the value of, say, low-carbon energy or marrying wind and natural gas. So stories like this that we get from the Arctic are one of the most powerful versions of not only why preserving the Arctic is critical or being able to manage it sustainably, but of finding ways to move forward… It’s ironic that when you go to Svalbard [Norway] they have one of the most pristine Arctic atmospheric observing stations, but 70 meters away, they are coal mining. The contradictions that you get are much starker in the Arctic than in many other places. It’s part of what Florian described as the tough interdependencies in the Arctic system."