Impact and the Arctic

Night-lit Arctic composite / Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Arctic changes have global impacts. This month the United States assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a forum which promotes intergovernmental cooperation in the Arctic region. The U.S. will chair the council from 2015 to 2017.

In conjunction a booklet titled Arctic Matters: The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic has been released. The booklet examines how altered Arctic conditions pose challenges and opportunities, presenting science in plain terms. Find the free booklet PDF online here. Its companion website presents information in an interactive format, and can be visited at The booklet and website are educational resources provided by the National Research Council’s Polar Research Board.

Julie Brigham-Grette, Department of Geosciences professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and chair of the National Research Council’s Polar Research Board, stated in a webinar presenting the booklet: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” and “In fact it impacts the entire globe, and it is important to everyone.”

Alaska glacier aerial / Image Laura Nielsen

Eight Arctic countries come together in the Arctic Council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The Arctic Council also includes six Permanent Participants, international organizations representing Arctic Indigenous Peoples: the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council.

The Arctic Council achieved two agreements: the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, signed in 2011, and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, signed in 2013. These legally binding agreements were signed by all eight Arctic countries, and outline duties and obligations for Arctic nations. They require cooperation, preparedness and response capabilities related to search and rescue efforts as well as in the event of any oil spill in the Arctic. The measures will likely be sorely needed as diminishing sea ice leads to more open ocean, allowing the chance at more Arctic transportation routes and more potential for oil and gas development.

Alaska / Laura Nielsen
Alaska / Laura Nielsen

The Arctic Council calls for sustainable development, environmental protection, and the promotion of community health and resilience in the face of rapid and ongoing change.

The Arctic Matters booklet records ‘Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Change’ and lists global impacts under headings like ‘Melting land ice causes sea levels to rise’, ‘Arctic changes ripple through the oceans and atmosphere’, ‘The Arctic’s living resources affect global health and well-being’, and ‘Feedback loops accelerate the pace of change’.

Alaska stony streambed / Laura Nielsen
Alaska stony streambed / Laura Nielsen

James White, Geological Sciences professor at the University of Colorado and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, spoke about understanding the impacts and ramifications of climate change. He described Earth’s energy system as having 3 knobs: incoming sunlight, Earth’s reflectivity or albedo (which bounces light energy away), and greenhouse gases (which trap heat in the atmosphere). Many of these tie into the research of scientists featured at FrontierScientists who are working to understand how different parts of Earth’s system are regulated. As snow, glaciers and sea ice melt, more dark ground is exposed to the Sun’s heat; White compares this to wearing a black t-shirt on a sunny day– you can feel the heat absorbed by the dark material. While light surfaces like snow cover reflect about 90% of solar rays back toward space, bare ground only reflects about 10%. That makes a big difference in the Arctic where summer sees continuous sunlight.

Stephanie Pfirman, Environmental Sciences professor at Barnard College, described “The area of summer sea ice […] at the end of the melt season in September has declined by more than 40% since the late 1970s.” Ongoing sea ice melt couples with sea ice “Losing the thermal resistance, the ability of the ice to withstand some warm events, and it’s becoming much more responsive to changes in atmospheric and ocean temperature,” and therefore more vulnerable to ongoing change. Land ice is also changing. In “2012 the snow cover was 40% of the 1971 to 2000 baseline.”

Pfirman said “Things are changing dramatically for Arctic residents,” and Arctic ecosystem changes are “Stressing the ways of life for many of the Arctic residents,” including about 4 million people.

Ecosystem changes alter fish habitats and availability, changing conditions for people who rely on subsistence hunting and fishing and for people who work in the fishing industry. At the same time interest in oil and mineral extraction as well as northern shipping routes results in higher risk of oil spill. Pfirman said “If there were a spill it would have a disproportionate impact, potentially, on the local community.”

In response to Arctic warming the jetstream can develop a more meandering path, which impacts Northern Hemisphere atmospheric conditions and storm patterns, potentially altering local conditions as well as ones across the Northern Hemisphere. Storms may move more slowly, leading to longer duration rainy weather events with the potential to create floods or dry weather with the potential to create droughts.

Alaska autumn view / Laura Nielsen
Alaska autumn view / Laura Nielsen

In the North, warming Arctic temperatures thaw permafrost ground. Ground that once remained frozen year-round, acting like a giant freezer for many thousands of years worth of dead plant matter, thaws and reintroduces ancient carbon into Earth’s carbon cycle. Carbon from thawed permafrost can enter water systems and be turned into carbon dioxide and methane, both highly impactful greenhouse gasses. White stated “There’s about as much carbon in permafrost as there is in all coal oil and natural gas put together.”

“We’ve left the door open to the freezer and all of that carbon is starting to decay,” White said, “It’s going to contribute carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere in amounts that rival those that we’ve put in.”

Interested in more Arctic science? Visit FrontierScientists for research projects featuring real scientists in the field. View our videos. You can also find free-access peer-reviewed scientific reports about the Arctic that provided the basis for the booklet on the National Research Council’s website.

Laura Nielsen 2015

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond