The last few bipolar months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship are ending

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President Obama during his visit to Alaska, which focused on climate change. Source: White House Archives.

Two years ago in Iqaluit, Canada’s “heart of the Arctic,” the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the region’s leading intergovernmental organization. The U.S. sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the event, continuing the recent tradition of the country sending its highest ranking diplomat.

Tomorrow at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will continue that tradition. Other than that, however, there’s a world of difference under the hood of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship.

The U.S. agenda for its chairmanship, which rotates every two years between the eight Arctic Council member states, was “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.” The three themes within this vision involved improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and addressing the impacts of climate change. If we measure the U.S. by its own yardstick – in other words, the goals in set out to accomplish two years ago – it’s probably done the most in the second and third areas. The U.S. presided over the establishment of the U.S. Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015, which has helped to maintain dialogue between Russia and the West in the Arctic. This is probably one area in which the previous and current administrations in the White House agree on its importance. At a time when tensions remain high between Russia and the West, the U.S. chairmanship has continued to emphasize a unified Arctic. Its theme of “One Arctic” has fostered strong levels of cooperation at sea and on land in the North and continued the project of region-building in the Arctic, helping member states to see shared priorities and concerns.

But it’s in the area of climate change where the U.S. chairmanship has been arguably the most successful in galvanizing action — and where the current administration has been trying to reverse a lot of the progress made. That’s why in Fairbanks tomorrow, it will be interesting to watch what remarks Tillerson delivers. Will he downplay the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area, which were all made by his boss’ predecessor, President Barack Obama, in order to focus on Trump’s goals of economic development, America First and climate last?

If he does that, this will be a disservice to the many accomplishments made by the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship with regard to climate change. Just a few months after the U.S. took over from Canada, in September 2015, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. He traveled to the North Slope town of Kotzebue and flew over the village of Kivalina, whose shoreline is eroding away. When Obama tweeted, he directly linked his love for Alaska to his passion for the “fight on climate change” – a fight that Trump clearly does not want to keep up. (Ominously, the video that was included is “no longer available”.) He even wrote a blog post on Medium describing how touched he was by his visit.

The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship also focused on promoting Arctic science. It targeted reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, which exacerbates Arctic climate change by covering up snow that would otherwise reflect away sunlight, supported Arctic climate adaptation and resilience efforts, and launched an initiative to create a two-meter digital elevation model (DEM) of the Arctic, which should be finished by this summer. The White House also hosted the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016, inviting researchers from around the world to discuss their work. Capping off all these scientific efforts, the U.S. and Russia co-chaired efforts to draft what will become the third-ever binding agreement under the Arctic Council once it is signed in Fairbanks tomorrow: the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

It is difficult to imagine Tillerson, who has stated in writing that he does not believe that fossil fuels are a “key” factor behind climate change, to laud the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area. Instead, he may choose to focus on the chairmanships’ work in promoting economic development, which have not nearly been as monumental. Canada, the previous Arctic Council chair, focused much more on this issue, as underscored by its establishment of the Arctic Economic Council. Already, the Trump administration has tried to make some nominal headway in this area. On April 28, he signed an executive order attempting to reverse the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which some Alaskans cheered. However, in so doing, Trump also controversially eliminated a tribal advisory council established under the Obama administration to provide recommendations and guidance on maritime activities in the Bering Sea.

So even if Tillerson attempts to shift a little bit of the U.S. chairmanship’s focus away from climate change and towards industry and development, this has to be taken with a big grain of salt. As I wrote previously, among other cuts, Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate the Essential Air Service, the Economic Development Administration, and the Denali Commission, all of which provide vital services to rural and Native Alaskans. While the current administration is pro-development in Alaska, it’s hardly the type of sustainable, local development that is needed across the Arctic today.

As Finland takes over, it will renew the Arctic Council’s focus on climate change, returning to the organization’s early roots of being focused on environmental issues when it was established 20 years ago. The first sentence on the Finnish chairmanship’s website states how the country “emphasizes the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” which Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of.

Outgoing Chair of the U.S. Senior Arctic Official David Balton said yesterday via teleconference, “The U.S. will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout.” The question, however, is really what level that engagement will be. With the White House deleting scientific data on climate change and trying to stimulate the very industries that will exacerbate black carbon emissions and Arctic warming like oil and coal, Finland and all other Arctic Council stakeholders would be wise to be wary.

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And so the Arctic Council chairmanship goes back to Finland, where food from its Arctic region, Lapland, can be easily found in the capital of Helsinki. Photo: Mia Bennett.

In 20 years, Arctic summer sea ice could be gone

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A summer scene in the Arctic which may never repeat itself some twenty years from now: Sea face of outside ice-foot at Distant Cape Roleson’s Channel (somewhere near Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland), June 1882. Photo: George W. Rice/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Say goodbye to dreams of standing at the top of the world, for you may soon have to swim. A report published last week by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme suggests that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer within twenty years. The 90 authors of the rigorously peer-reviewed AMAP report state, “Extrapolations of recent observed data suggest a largely ice-free summer ocean by the late 2030s, which is earlier than projected by most climate models.”

We may now only have two decades to prepare for an Arctic devoid of summer sea ice.

This timeframe is also much sooner than AMAP reports from the early 2000s predicted. An executive summary published in 2004, just 13 years ago, projected near total loss of summer sea ice by the end of this century. Now, with summer sea ice forecasted to be gone by the late 2030s, that projection has been sped up about 70 years. The faster pace of Arctic climate change means that there is even less time for communities, nations, and international organizations to design and implement adaptation policies. Where we once might have had another eight decades or so to prepare for an ice-free Arctic, we now may have only two decades. Importantly, extrapolations from recent data rather than models are what indicate that society has hit the fast-forward button on Arctic climate change. 

The AMAP report executive summary, which is written with policy makers in mind, has six key findings. They are: 

  1. The Arctic climate is shifting to a new state.
  2. Arctic climate change is continuing at a rapid pace.
  3. Warming that is already “locked in” to the climate change means that climate change will continue at least through mid-century.
  4. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however, can stabilize change after 2050.
  5. Mitigation and adaptation policies can limit vulnerabilities.
  6. Putting these in place requires a solid understanding of Arctic climate change.

In other words, the takeaway message appears to be: Arctic climate change is drastic, but it can be stabilized if we continue to do good scientific research and implement science-based policy. Of course, as the report also notes, traditional ecological knowledge should also inform decision making.

By the numbers

You could read the report and learn that the Arctic was warmer from 2011-2015 than at any point since record keeping began in 1900. Or that sea ice thickness declined by 65% between 1975 and 2012. Or that Greenland lost more than 20 square miles of ice each year from 2011-2014, nearly twice as much as was lost between 2003 and 2008. These numbers are shocking, but perhaps it’s easier to conceptualize Arctic change in terms of how much else it affects, both locally and globally. Below are a few snapshots of what all that melting sea ice means for the world at large.

Local impacts

Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea

Another summer scene which may never repeat itself: “Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea by G. Madsen, June 1909.” Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hunting opportunities will be curtailed with the loss of summer sea ice. As a recent publication in Biology Letters based on interviews with 11 coastal hunters from the Bering Sea to the Beaufort Sea described, hunting will become harder and more dangerous. Sea ice limits wave action, so without it, open water navigation actually becomes more precarious. Species like walruses and seals also hang around the ice, so hunters will have to travel farther out as sea ice retreats – and who knows where these animals will go once there is no more summer sea ice (perhaps they may instead haul out on land). 

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014.

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett

Unlike Arctic summer sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet should stick around for a lot longer. Studies have found that it would take at least 1,000 years of sustained temperatures 3°C higher than average for it to completely melt away. Still, current levels of melting on the world’s largest island can contribute significantly to sea level rise. The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicted that Greenland’s melting would contribute 9 inches to sea level rise by 2100. Eric Rignot, professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, believes that could be an underestimate

And what would happen if and when the ice sheet were to disappear? First, there would be about 23 feet of sea level rise. Second, an older, deeply sobering study called, “Climatic Impact of a Greenland Deglaciation and Its Possible Irreversibility,” came to a very finite conclusion. If the Greenland ice sheet were to completely melt away, the authors found, its disappearance would be “irreversible” even if preindustrial climate conditions were reestablished afterwards. In other words, once it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Global ramifications

Boreal forests are literally “breaking apart” as the permafrost beneath them thaws. Apart from the oceans, they are the world’s largest biome, stretching across Alaska, Canada, the Nordic countries, and Russia, where they are called taiga. The increased rate of forest fires is also burning through big stands of trees. It’s thought that climate change was behind the devastating forest fires that engulfed the boreal boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta last spring, painfully revealing the human and economic impacts of rapid northern climate change. 

Slumping trees on thawing permafrost.

This is what happens to trees when the permafrost beneath them thaws and refreezes year after year. Photo: Mia Bennett, Northwest Territories, Canada. June 2016.

Arctic warming could alter the Southeast Asian monsoon, possibly leading to up to 70% less rain in India and Southeast Asia during the summer monsoon season. As the Arctic gets warmer and wetter, parts of the world that already are suffering water shortages may be even more hard up for H2O. 

After the rain in Delhi, India.

Summer monsoons in India could be negatively impacted by Arctic warming. Photo: Mia Bennett, New Delhi, India, September 2013.

Is there still hope?

The AMAP report’s determination that Arctic climate change is already “locked in” through 2050 may sound like mitigation efforts are futile. But they are not. The authors conclude, “Climate models show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing concentrations, under a scenario roughly consistent with the Paris Agreement, could stabilize the further loss of snow cover and permafrost after mid-century.” All the more reason, then, for the United States not to renege on the landmark global climate agreement. 

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement could eliminate any chance we have to stabilize Arctic climate change.

The outlook for the Paris Agreement remains grim, however. At a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania last night marking his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump promised (threatened?), “I’ll be making a big decision on the Paris accord over the next two weeks, and we’ll see what happens.” It’s unclear which way the president will swing given the divisions between his advisors and cabinet members on the matter. But if the U.S. pulls out the rug from under the Paris Agreement, any chance we have to stabilize Arctic warming will likely evaporate.

Eiffel Tower/Tour Eiffel at sunset in winter, Paris, France.

The Paris Agreement may represent our last chance to stabilize whatever Arctic warming we have already caused, but it faces dark days ahead. Photo: Mia Bennett/December 2012.

Obituary for an Arctic river

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Dried lake pinnacles in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake, Yukon, Canada. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

I haven’t been posting a lot lately, and that’s because I’ve had a hectic schedule over the past month with fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic and conferences and talks on the East Coast of the United States. Now, I’m happy to be back in one place for a little while, which allows me some time to sit, gather my thoughts, and reflect on the latest developments in the Arctic.

Much of the Northern news this week has focused on Russia’s opening of a new Arctic military base on Franz Josef Land, a couple hundred miles east of Svalbard. Fox News took the bait and asked in its headline, “A new Cold War in the Arctic? Russia unveils virtual tour of new military base.” I think the headline answers its own question because if we were on track for a new Cold War, I doubt Russia would be allowing web surfers from around the world to explore the base via its dedicated website (in Russian).

A bigger story this week in terms of rapid Arctic change involves the sudden disappearance of a river in the Yukon, located in Canada’s western Arctic, last spring. In a case of what scientists term “river piracy,” climate-driven glacial retreat caused the glacially-fed Slims River (A’ay Chu, in the native language) to stop flowing north into the Bering Sea and instead west into the Gulf of Alaska. Essentially, the lake on top of the Kaskawulsh Glacier that drained into the Slims River changed its outlet to the previously much smaller Kaskawulsh River. Previously, scientists thought that river piracy happened over the course of centuries. In the Yukon, the drying up of the Slims River happened in a mere four days.

This is the first known instance of post-industrial, climactically-driven river reorganization. The fact that it was “geologically instantaneous,” to use the words of the Nature Geoscience paper’s authors, also suggests that the timescale with which we imagine Arctic climate change is woefully misguided. The retreat of Arctic sea ice, for instance, is usually imagined as taking place over years or decades. For an Arctic river to disappear in a matter of days brings “rapid Arctic climate change” to a whole new level. The authors also urge, “Most studies of the effects of climate change on glacial environments deal with enhanced melt or contributions to sea-level rise. We suggest that the effects can be more far reaching.”

This epic landscape transformation in the Yukon may wreak havoc on downstream ecosystems. The authors also reported that by Fall 2016, months after the river rerouting, “massive afternoon dust storms almost daily on the nearly abandoned Slims River floodplain.” In the future, the picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage-designated lake into which the Slims River flows, Kluane Lake, may even seasonally close. The river and lake, which is the Yukon’s largest, are located in Kluane National Park. This is one of the jewels of Canada’s parks system, containing the country’s tallest peak and the world’s largest non-polar ice field. The Kluane First Nations and other northerners who rely on the lake for sustenance and recreation, along with the fish and other marine species that inhabit it, could all be severely impacted as well.

The colours of Kluane Lake #exploreyukon |Photo by @jte__photography #explorecanada

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A healthy Kluane Lake.

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Dust storms in a newly exposed part of Kluane Lake. Photo: Jim Best/University of Illinois

This story of the disappearance of the Slims River hit close to home ago because just a few weeks ago, I was in the Yukon. I didn’t have much time to get out on the land, but I did see some incredible mountains flying in and out of Whitehorse, the territory’s capital. The dramatic landscape seems too large – larger than life, to borrow Travel Yukon’s official slogan for the territory – for humans to be able to seriously alter it. But alas, as scientists, satellite imagery, and fieldwork confirm, we have.

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Descending into Whitehorse. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

When I was in the Yukon in March, I stayed in the capital, Whitehorse. The city of 23,000 people sits along the Yukon River, which is also glacially fed. I spent a nice evening in late March, when the sun already stays out until close to 9:00 pm, walking along the Millennium Trail that loops around a five-kilometer stretch of the meandering river. The trail turns back towards town at the Whitehorse Hydro Plant, which underscores how rivers and hydropower have become key sources of energy for northern Canada. No rushing river, no spinning turbines, no hydropower.

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Big chunks of ice in front of Whitehorse’s hydropower plant. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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SS Klondike, a historic sternwheeler that used to run freight between Whitehorse and Dawson along the Yukon River during the 20th century. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Like the Slims River, the Yukon River’s headwaters are located in a glacier (Llewellyn Glacier, to be exact, in British Columbia). If the Yukon River hadn’t existed, much of the territory’s development would likely have never taken place whether in prehistoric or industrial times. Rivers have long provided sustenance for northern First Nations like the Holikachuk and the Gwich’in. In the modern era, salmon fisheries have become an important industry, while rivers have also been used as transportation arteries by steamboats sailing between the Yukon and Alaska. These routes were key for opening up the Canadian and American North to gold seekers and miners. By 1899, 30 steamboats were plying the Yukon River alone.

In the Yukon, rivers aren’t as important as they used to be for industrial transport given that that most of the territory’s communities are now connected by road. Many roadless settlements in the neighboring Northwest Territories rely on barge transport, however. If one of the NWT’s glacially fed rivers were to dry up, goods would have to be flown in at great cost – or else a gravel road would have to be built great distances across unforgiving terrain. The northern communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk are already replacing their ice road, built on the frozen Mackenzie River each year, with an all-weather highway that will open later this year. In the Arctic, rivers of gravel are replacing rivers of ice.

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The winter ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. The ice road sits atop the Mackenzie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

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Work being done in a gravel pit near the Inuvik-Tuk Highway. Photo: Mia Bennett, March 2017.

Rivers also remain key battlefields in the fight between environmentalists and mining interests. The resource-rich Peel Watershed, which is home to four First Nations, is ground zero for this debate in the Yukon at the moment. The ongoing battle is currently being decided by Canada’s Supreme Court, demonstrating how rivers can serve as organizing forces for both preservationists and developers. If a river like the Peel were to suddenly disappear, however, and turns into a dusty watershed unable to support people, flora, or fauna, then maybe mining will have its day. I suppose this is already happening in the Arctic, where, with sea ice retreating, the response appears to be one of, “Bring in the oil rigs!”

So, to those of you who haven’t experienced the glacial thrill of swimming, fishing, kayaking, or simply picnicking aside a river in the Yukon: get there while you can. I’ll never forget the long day I spent on Canada Day Weekend along the Ogilvie River with friends last summer, casting our lines into the cold water, taking a quick dip in a peaceful river bend, making s’mores under the midnight sun, and seeing a rainbow at two in the morning. Let’s hope more of the Arctic’s rivers don’t disappear anytime soon.

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A rainbow at 2am along the Ogilvie River. Photo: Mia Bennett, July 2016.