Arctic Matters Day

On January 14th, The National Academies of Sciences held a public symposium “Arctic Matters Day” to provide an overview of the dramatic environmental changes affecting the Arctic region and the many ways these changes can affect the world’s population.



In her opening remarks, Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, said a warming Arctic affects local residents and communities by impacting subsistence foods and cultural practices, as well as coastal villages and basic infrastructure.


It causes community instability, village relocations, increased storms, unpredictable weather, and extreme weather events.  With less sea ice to act as a blanket on the ocean during winter storms, waves are much larger and more shoreline erosion occurs.  Thawing permafrost weakens soil and foundations.  It all adds up to a compounded impact on infrastructure.


Coastal Concerns: How will melting polar ice affect global sea level rise?

Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University gave a presentation on coastal concerns and how melting polar ice will affect global sea level rise.  He said that when considering sea level change, the Arctic is the key. Just a small rise in sea level in certain places at certain times can have an impact, sometimes a very significant one for coastal communities.

Glacier physics can explain how the ice sheets are changing and contributing to a rising sea level.  An ice sheet that is two miles thick can constitute the majority of a continent.  The ice sheet spreads under its own weight as snow falls on the center.  Sea levels fall when the ice sheet grows, and rise when the ice sheet shrinks.

The middle of a glacier does not melt very often, most of the melting occurs on the glacier edges. But from time to time puddles form in the middle, and the water seeps into the crevasses (cracks).  The seeping water lubricates the ice and accelerates the melting process. If Greenland becomes warmer, its glaciers could melt completely in a couple of centuries.  This would add 23 feet to the world’s sea level.

Alley said researchers have high confidence that the global sea level is rising, and that global warming comes mostly from carbon dioxide and partly from groundwater mining.  Expanded warm water conditions and mountain glacier meltwater are other contributing factors.  If trends continue, these factors are projected to accelerate.  Most melting is happening slowly with the exception of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.


Crazy weather and a melting Arctic: Are they connected?

Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University discussed the connection between erratic weather and the melting Arctic.  Right now, in regard to historical trends, the Arctic is in uncharted territory.  In terms of sea ice loss, uncharted territory was entered only in the past 30 years.

The higher rate of change in the Arctic compared to the slower pace in the mid-latitude is referred to as Amplified Arctic Warming.  As the jet streams get bigger and stay longer in one place, persistent extreme weather events increase in frequency.

Francis discussed air physics, and explained that when air warms, it expands. This creates a hill in the atmosphere that tilts from mid latitudes into the Arctic.  Wind is created because air at the top of the hill wants to go down, and the air at the bottom of the hill wants to go up.  Because the earth is spinning, the overall direction of the wind (or jet streams) is to the right.

As this relates to the Amplified Arctic Warming phenomena, the force that drives the wind uphill weakens the western and eastern sides of the jet streams, making them stay in the same area for longer periods of time.  Weaker jet streams are also more easily diverted by mountain ranges and other natural obstructions.  Wavering jet streams bring normal, small fluctuations in weather patterns, because small jet streams move more quickly west to east.  When they’re larger they move slower from east to west.  The waves in the jet stream make the planet’s weather.

One effect of Arctic amplification is a reduced poleward gradient which weakens the zonal upper-level flow.  A weaker flow slows the eastward wave progression and tends to follow a higher amplitude trajectory, resulting in slower moving circulation systems.

The second effect is a northward elongation of ridge peaks which amplifies the flow trajectory and further exacerbates the increased probability of slow-moving weather patterns.

Arctic amplification during autumn and winter is largely driven by sea-ice loss and the subsequent transfer of additional energy from the ocean into the high-latitude atmosphere. The increased tendency for high-amplitude patterns in the summer is consistent with enhanced warming over high-latitude land caused by earlier snow melt and drying soil.

As the Arctic sea-ice cover continues to disappear and the snow cover melts earlier over vast regions of Eurasia and North America, the large-scale circulation patterns throughout the northern hemisphere are expected to become increasingly influenced by Arctic Amplification.  (More information about Francis’ studies can be found here.)  In both cases, the waves were huge and persistent, and persistence is what causes extreme weather events.

Francis ended her presentation on a positive note, saying that with better communications about the phenomena, more people are learning about it and understanding that everyone will be either directly or indirectly affected to some degree by changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.


Panel discussion: Extreme weather impacts on the U.S.

The main points offered in the concluding panel discussion were that certain types of extreme weather events are becoming more (or less) frequent in the U.S.  In particular, big heat, big rain, big cold, and big drought are seen more often. The state of knowledge about extreme events is related to the state of associated data.

Observing occurrences is different from observing quantities, or things that can be measured. This is consequential in how people assess extreme events.

Impacts from extreme events depend upon more than the physical climate. Attributing the drivers or influencers of extreme events is an emerging discipline.


The Living Arctic: How do plants and animals of the tundra respond to and shape global change

Natalie Boelman of Columbia University gave a presentation on how plants and animals are responding to the changes occurring in the Arctic.  She discussed the greening of the Arctic trend from 1982 to 2010, where low lying grass turned into taller, leafier vegetation.  The soils are releasing more carbon dioxide into the air than the additional vegetation can absorb, meaning that the warming of the overall arctic ecosystem is self-generating.

With longer growing seasons, more heat is absorbed by the ground.  The albedo, or reflectivity of tundra surface, is only 15%, compared to ice or snow cover that reflects back about 70% of incoming solar radiation.

More tundra fires are occurring because of warmer temperatures and the ecosystem has not adapted to burning.  Burned vegetation has an even lower albedo than the vegetation, meaning even more solar radiation absorption by the soil.

Boelman discussed a NASA study she is involved with, The Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABOVE), in which thousands of animals have been tagged with GPS tags periodically recording their locations in the habitat of their choosing.  Complementing the location data, environmental satellites are measuring weather patterns, extreme weather events, vegetation changes, vegetation structure, snow cover conditions, and ecological and environmental impacts on animal movement.

With this unique use of satellite technology, researchers will find out how groups of animals either avoid or are drawn to environmental and ecological events.

She also discussed the Greening of the Arctic project which is now in its wrap-up phase.  One part of the project looks at how the birds of the Arctic are responding to Arctic greening.

By combining field measurements of vegetation characteristics and nest site locations with future predictions, a picture of very different vegetation can be drawn for the year 2050.  One species of bird, the Lapland Longspur, will lose its habitat completely as the habitat of White-Crowned Sparrow expands northward.

Changes in bird breeding habitats have consequences for areas beyond the Arctic.  Many bird species that breed in the summer tundra spend the winters farther south.  In this way, they provide ecological connectivity between the Arctic and ecosystems all over the world.

Boelman discussed how animals play a role in climate regulation.  In the distant past, large mammal roaming and grazing patterns—involving mammoths, bison, and horses—changed the cover vegetation and soil properties, influencing the greenhouse gas exchanges between the tundra and atmosphere.

While most of the megafauna species are long gone, moose, muskoxen, and caribou are still present.  Boelman said some of her colleagues put up fences to keep these animals out, and then learned that they are trampling vegetation and inhibiting that vegetation from photosynthesizing and taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  In some cases, the amount of photosynthesis that plants could perform was reduced by up to three-fold.

Some of Boelman’s other work looks at the impact of smaller organisms on vegetation. Satellite data shows that Arctic vegetation plummets after a rodent boom.

In conclusion, Boelman reiterated that Arctic plants and animals are responding to climate change, and as a result, climate regulation and other ecosystem services that the global community relies upon will be impacted.


The Arctic Energy Revolution: How and why your future energy system is being pioneered in the Arctic

Gwen Holdmann of the Alaska Center for Energy & Power gave a presentation on the people who live beyond the North American power grid.  Holdmann said she learned about the difficulties living beyond the grid when she first moved to Alaska.  She needed to use a wind turbine, solar panels and a diesel generator to provide power to her home.  A battery system was used as a control management system for the various types of energy contributing to her grid.

Even though Alaska is an oil producing and exporting state, the fuel that is used in rural Alaska is actually not Alaska fuel.  In addition, only a small window of seasonal opportunity is available for ships to deliver fuel to rural coastal communities.  That makes the cost of fuel very high, so a lot of incentives exist to integrate renewable energy products into peoples’ homes in that region.

After personally living through the challenge of operating renewable energy systems in remote areas, she changed her career focus to energy engineering.

Early in her new career, she was hired by the Chena Hot Springs resort to guide their transition from diesel power and imported food to renewable energy and locally grown food.  Taking on the food challenge, the resort built a greenhouse that became the first greenhouse in Alaska to operate year round.

Other innovative projects used available local resources.  A refrigeration system kept an ice museum below freezing.  Hydrogen was generated as a cooking fuel.

Power generation was the biggest challenge.  The hot springs water was around 165 Fahrenheit (about the same temperature as a latte), which wasn’t particularly hot for a geothermal resources.  The consensus was that it was too low for power generation.

However, Holdmann explained that power isn’t just a function of heat temperature, but also a function of the ambient temperature.  The difference between the two determines how much power can be generated, even without an extremely high geothermal resource available.

Holdmann, along with the other engineers working on this project, reverse engineered the system to use the lower than normal temperatures to generate geothermal power.  But there was still a struggle to turn off the diesel generator.  To find those solutions, it was best to look locally.  By incorporating wind power into the facility, they were able to generate enough power year round to no longer have to rely on the diesel generator.

Holdmann stated that there is a real paradox in these rural communities.  In one way, they resemble to developing world much more than they resemble anywhere else in the U.S.  There is very minimal infrastructure, and access to modern wastewater systems is a luxury in most places in rural Alaska.  The economy is still very much subsistence-based, but at the same time, the Arctic has always been a place that has been bright with innovation and creativity.

It is fascinating to think about how people are managing to live, survive and thrive in this difficult environment.  To the people in the Arctic, taking advantage of the natural world around them is part of their DNA.

She brought up 4 communities in southwest Alaska that are working together to turn off their diesel generator and run 100% off wind power.  They are doing this through a combination of solutions such as advanced storage solutions that use a lithium ion battery, and storing energy in alternate forms such as heat instead of electric power.

Kodiak Island has taken this one step further.  They operate 100% on renewable energy on a year-round basis.  This is through a combination of hydropower, wind power, a small battery system to help balance the wind power.

About half the communities in Alaska are now operating on grid-scale levels of renewables with their diesel-based power generation.  This represents 12% of the world’s micro-grids that have renewable resources incorporated on their grids.

She then discussed how high voltage substations are integral for the lower 48’s grid system to operate.  These are very important nodes in the giant electric system that operates across the country.  This is where high voltage power that is generated far away is brought down to lower voltage systems to distribute power to homes and businesses across the country.

There are thousands of these across the country, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently conducted a power flow analysis that concluded some of these nodes are critical to the grid system, and there are about 30 of these nodes that can be classified as very critical nodes.  If 9 of these critical nodes were knocked out simultaneously, there would be a coast-to-coast blackout.

Though this in an unlikely event, the potential threat has resulted in investigating into distributed generation and integrating renewables and energy storage, just like people have been doing in Alaska for over a decade.


Panel Discussion: Can the Arctic be a new frontier for sustainable development?

Panelists discussed the role of crucial components of Alaska’s economy and how they can be incorporated into a sustainable future.


Alaska Native Perspective on Sustainable Ecosystem Management

Craig Fleener, with the Alaska Governor’s office, gave a Native Alaskan perspective on sustainable ecosystem management.  He noted the highly technical nature of most of the presentations that have occurred so far, and stated that he was going to talk about the human element of what the other presenters were discussing.

He began by stating that adaptation is the key to surviving all the changes that are taking place in the Arctic.  The only reason we are all here today is because of adaptation.  Alaska is unique among other states because it codified that fishing and hunting are essential to the people’s way of life.  Alaskans inhabit some of the coldest, darkest, and most remote parts of North America.

Subsistence hunting and fishing provide the equivalent of $400 million worth of food each year to the residents of rural Alaska.  He stated that events like Arctic Matters Day, and the work that the Arctic Council does are critical to starting conversations and educating the public about the Arctic.  But there is a potential problem in that people do not always have the best intentions when attempting to find solutions to address the changes.

He also encouraged audience members not to forget about the people living in rural Alaska and their needs.  It is important to not approach Arctic Matters from a solely Washington, D.C.-perspective.  The people that are living there should be asked what should be done when it comes to addressing the changes that are occurring.

We cannot shut the doors on Alaska in attempt to preserve it and keep the indigenous peoples as museum pieces.  The people in Alaska must live on the land, develop and use the resources around us, and find solutions to the problems we face like we continue to do with energy issues.  The way we have been living has allowed us to thrive off of the landscape for thousands of years.

The focus must be on adaptation, which is a message of hope that demonstrates an understanding that humans have adapted to a changing climate since the beginning.  It recognizes that different people, in different places, with different circumstances have their own ability to survive.  It shows that the scientific community is not the only place for information, and there is more than just the “scare tactic” that turns so many people away from the important message we have to give.

Adaptation will help focus governments, NGOs, tribes, and other organizations about finding on-the-ground solutions to real problems like erosion impacts and community displacement.  It also recognizes that we can look at alternatives to the status-quo mentality we have developed over time, especially for far away, dark, and cold places like Alaska.


Oil & Gas Development in a Sustainable Future

This question was addressed by James Kendall of BOEM, who began by stating that in the U.S. Arctic, it is estimated there are 30 billion barrels of oil throughout the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas, and other on and offshore areas in Alaska.  There are no other areas in the Arctic where there are double digit estimates of barrels of oil.  He described Alaska as the 500 pound gorilla in the room among all the other Arctic states when it comes to traditional oil and gas resources.

Kendall then gave some context to better understand what 30 billion barrels of oil and gas means.  In the 40 years that the Trans-Alaska pipeline has been in operation, it has transported about 17 billion barrels of oil.  But, these are just estimates.  But, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers are only based on estimates – you have to physically go out there and explore to see what is really there.

It is estimated that 80% of these resources in Alaska are in the offshore area.  There have been a total of 37 exploration wells drilled in the U.S. offshore area.  When it comes to the coastal area, which is estimated to hold 20% of the resources, there have been more that 500 exploratory wells drilled.

The only offshore production has been in the Beaufort Sea, where four man-made islands are used to conduct operations.  In over 40 years of oil and gas activity, there have been a total of seven production wells and about 500 exploratory wells drilled.

Compare this to the Gulf of Mexico where over that same period of time there have been 18,000 wells drilled and 2,300 production facilities.  The message is clear that the Arctic is a frontier area for oil and gas development.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act indicates it is required to consider offshore oil and gas development in Alaska.  Those who have been delegated this responsibility make up BOEM.  BOEM does not just manage oil and gas, they also have a strong program that works on developing renewable energy using ocean energy.  This is in line with the Administration’s order to phase out fossil fuels.

He then discussed the areas that make up BOEM’s Arctic focus, which they have been focusing on since 2007:

  • Whales, walruses, polar bears & seals;
  • Ecosystem monitoring;
  • Fate and effects monitoring;
  • Sea ice dynamics;
  • Social Systems; and
  • Traditional knowledge.


BOEM bases their areas of focus on science, and work with other agencies to make these decisions.  Kendall highlighted the important role that traditional knowledge plays.  The knowledge that native peoples have acquired over generations is a knowledge system that must be used alongside to make decisions.  How to use traditional knowledge alongside western science is a process-rich endeavor.


Sustainable Alaska fisheries

This question was addressed by Anne Hollowed, NOAA, who began by giving an overview of what commercial fisheries provide for society in terms of Alaska-wide fisheries, what is coming from the Bering Sea, and finally, the feasibility of sustainable commercial fisheries in the High North.

She discussed some of the tools for sustainable fisheries, which include:

  • Resource surveys;
  • Measurements of fish condition (age, size, maturity, diet);
  • Target and limit constraints to prevent overfishing;
  • In-season catch constraints (fisheries observer program);
  • Time – area – gear restrictions; and
  • Forage fish catch deterrents.


Hollowed then went into further detail about how some of these tools work.  The Bering Sea fisheries are quite mature.  They have developed a sequence of tools so resources can be managed sustainably.  The first foundation is conducting regular surveys – it is crucial to constantly look at what is going on with the resource.

Secondly, Hollowed stated they are looking at measurements of the fish condition – be it may their age, size, maturity, or diet.  These are the fundamental inputs that allow scientists to make estimates of what constitutes sustainable harvest.  There is no doubt that in-season harvest controls that are put in place to control fishing are a key element of any sustainable fishery going forward.

NOAA puts fishery observers on board many of the commercial vessels, and also has a shore-side monitoring system to track vessel’s catch.  Because the system is so mature, a variety of other constraints need to be tracked as well.  For example, there are constraints on how much crab is caught as by-catch when fishing for ground fish.  These constraints are put in place to allow for opportunities for these subsistence fisheries to thrive.

The last piece is that we not only look at what is going on in the target fisheries and the by-catch that is being harvested, but also where those fisheries are being prosecuted.  There are a variety of time and area closures that occur in the Alaska system.


If you look at fisheries in the High Arctic, this area is completely closed off.  Several years ago, the Regional Fisheries Management Council looked at whether or not fisheries should be opened in this area.  In order to answer this question, the density of the fisheries was assessed.  There were only a few stocks that were dense enough to even consider a commercial fishery, and within those, there was not enough historical information about the age history component to prosecute a fishery.  At this point, this area is closed off from commercial fishing.

In addition, there is a considerable amount of research that needs to be done to be able what is going to happen to the fisheries in the Arctic with the effects that climate change will cause.

Kendall then asked how we are going to move forward in the Arctic.  There are several ecosystem research projects that are ongoing to address this question.  One key element that relates to an earlier speaker is that you have to look holistically at what the implications of climate change are on the fish and fisheries, but you also need to look at what the broader implications on society will be.