Arctic experts warn of urgent need for collaboration

New attention on the Arctic has cast a light on some of the difficulties facing the government and scientific researchers: communication and collaboration.

And they’re running short on time.

That was the message from several speakers at a forum on Arctic issues held in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.

Sharing information among the many programs scattered across the federal government can be hit-or-miss. And the issue has dire consequences, researchers said Wednesday. Researchers, policymakers and politicians agreed that the pace of climate change in the Arctic will be anything but glacial and will likely result in major, cascading impacts across the world.

“Abrupt Arctic warming is likely just an early trigger of events that are about to come. Therefore, we need to be smart about how we develop plausible scenarios for the future and engage thinking about abrupt climate change,” said Paul Mayewski, director and professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

Recent attention for Arctic issues has had a “powerful impact,” said Larry Hinzman, vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski agreed, saying, “I think that those of us that have been engaged in this for some period of time, as much as we like to spend time with one another, we really need to be getting outside of our comfort zone and we’re finally getting there.” .

Murkowski hesitantly called the president’s trip to the Arctic two weeks ago “unprecedented” and said it gave the state the chance to “invite the rest of the world to the U.S. Arctic for several days.”

Murkowski and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, have been pushing their colleagues in Congress to take an interest in Arctic issues, but they both acknowledged it is a struggle.

International collaboration also remains an issue for Arctic advocates, Murkowski said. She noted two recent binding agreements made by the Arctic Council – one on search and rescue coordination and another on preparing for oil spills.

A third is under consideration, Murkowski said. “They’re working towards an agreement on improved scientific cooperation,” which should be completed before the U.S. relinquishes the chairmanship of the council, she said.

“If you want to gather a soil sample …” from the sea floor, “you have to have permission from the nation that controls that particular area of the Arctic,” Murkowski said. With Russia extending its claim over the 45 percent of the Arctic using the Law of the Sea convention, “the amount of international space in the Arctic is shrinking,” Murkowski said.

That’s even more concerning considering Russia’s history of pulling out of agreements to allow research activity.

A binding agreement on scientific cooperation would be key, Murkowski said. “This needs to be a priority in the science community and for those who value science.”

King also urged researchers to share much more of their work with lawmakers and said more information was needed on melting permafrost and the timing of expected climate change in the Arctic.

But highlighting the disconnect in the broad governmental efforts to handle Arctic issues, one NOAA researcher on a later panel noted that he may have had answers for many of King’s questions already.

“Most people in the general public think of climate change as incremental,” King said. But climate change can occur abruptly and the U.S. needs to understand “what we’re dealing with here in terms of risk.”

And that’s because the impacts are major, Hinzman, of UAF, said. The Arctic has warmed 2-4 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years – about the same difference between current temperatures and the last ice age, he said. “Three degrees’ warming has tremendous impacts.”

In the Arctic, “it will take us from a frozen state to a thawed state,” Hinzman said. And as the permafrost changes, “we see just a cascade of impacts,” he said, such as a “dramatic increase in the number of landslides.”

One way of bringing the issue home to those outside the Arctic may be to focus on the impacts for other areas of the world, researchers said.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” said George Roe, research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

One issue that has major potential to be a disruptive force for the global climate is shifting winds and atmospheric circulation, several researchers said.

The collapse of Mesopotamia 4,200 years ago “happened super fast because of a small shift in moisture-bearing winds, determined by the temperature difference of the planet. Something very similar happened to the Mayan empire and the disappearance of them,” Mayewski, of the University of Maine, said.

“The location of the ancient Mesopotamian empire is smack dab in the middle of Syria, Iraq and Iran. What goes on in the Arctic impacts regions far to the south,” Mayewski said. “So we are clearly embarking on a very, very dramatic period.”

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