Arctic Transformation: Understanding Arctic Research and the Vital Role of Science

Heather Conley welcomed the crowd to this conference, co-sponsored by the Senate Arctic Caucus and the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). The webcast of the five-hour conference, as well as program agenda can be found here.


Following President Obama’s historic visit to the American Arctic, the conference’s main topic was the vital role of science in understanding the profound and stunning changes occurring in the Arctic. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) gave opening remarks.


Session I: Improving Understanding of Arctic Environmental Change and Impact


Speaking about the landscape in transition, Dr. Larry Hinzman said the two to four degree increase in average temperatures can have tremendous impacts, as the permafrost is just below freezing. Understanding the mechanisms that underlie the processes that control carbon and the energy transfer in the biosphere is crucial, as well as understanding how those processes play out in a changing landscape.


The impacts on infrastructure can be devastating. Most of the changes are occurring during the winter and fall, while the spring and summer temperatures are consistent with those in the past. As the permafrost degrades, infiltration of the soil improves, drying out the surface, which changes the vegetation.


Changes in permafrost can trigger a cascade of consequences such as changes in an ecosystem that depends on the hydrology, and the evolution of the landscape. This can result in an increase in landslides, debris flows, and retrogressive thermokarst slumps, which have important civil implications. For example, the state of Alaska may have to relocate a bridge because of its proximity to a landslide.


Permafrost covers 20 percent of the land in the northern hemisphere. Across Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, as the permafrost degrades, lakes will drain and shrink, impacting regional climates, native wildlife species and indigenous people’s subsistence activities.


There is more carbon stored in the permafrost than what presently circulates in the whole global atmosphere. Most of the permafrost will take a long time to degrade, but a substantial quantity of carbon is located in the vulnerable top layers.


Another typical Arctic landscape is polygonal ground formed when the surface cools very rapidly. This warming disturbance causes the ground to contract and eventually crack, making previous low-centered polygons high-centered. In the spring, when the snow melts, water will drain into the cracks and freeze. Over time, this forms ice wedges up to 20-30 meters deep.


Warmer temperatures can then melt the ice wedges, which are interconnected by channels, and change the landscape.


Hinzman also spoke about coastal erosion, which threatens 31 villages in Alaska.


Trends of decreasing sea ice and increased open water fetch, combined with warming air and ground temperatures, are expected to result in higher wave energy, increased seasonal thaw, and accelerated coastal retreat along large parts of the circum-Arctic coast.


Twelve of the 31 villages threatened by erosion are already making plans for relocation, which, besides the expense, is a complicated social issue. Communities often want to relocate to similar areas instead of ones that may be more stable geologically.


Hinzman also described changing fish species. “Cool pool” bottom water has shifted 230 km north from 1980 to the 2000. Warmer water is now taking southern fish farther north.  Economically-valuable Bering Sea species, such as tanner crab and pollock, may decline and be replaced with lower-value species.


Another species, walrus, faces negative impacts from sea ice loss. Dependent on the ice for habitat and protection, walrus have been forced onshore at Point Lay, where they are vulnerable to predators.


In conclusion, Hinzman stated some ways these challenges could be met:

  • Maintaining and building operational capacity
  • Sustaining long-term observations
  • Growing human capacity
  • Enhancing cooperation
  • Managing and sharing information
  • Investing in research


Richard Glenn, Executive Vice President of Lands and Natural Resources for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, covered Arctic business interests, saying that one shouldn’t generalize about the Arctic because it contains a tremendous amount of diversity.


The differences in thermocline conductivity in Prudhoe Bay and Barrow, he said, causes their physical environments to react differently, which is why an understanding of the changes needs to be built into the system.


Glenn credited the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery as the origin of all the mineral development on the North Slope.


His message was to go local first, as local people have developed a backdrop for new research and data acquisition.


Discussing shore-fast and land-fast ice, Glenn said land-fast ice becomes a part of the geography from about November until July 4, and is then followed by open water and mixed ice conditions.


Glenn said that bowhead whales follow the receding ice packs in the spring, making their way to the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas to spend their summers in Canada. The bowhead whale migration is one example of the way the diverse Arctic region is tied together.


Glenn added that Native whaling captains serve as a great connection between scientists and local indigenous experts. They diffuse the cultural differences so that visiting researchers can learn hundreds of years of history.


Glenn’s final point was that the region would have no economy without resource development. The North Slope’s most promising development is to take advantage of the best that both traditional knowledge and science has to offer.


“Go local first, building with expertise that is in the region,” he said.


George Roe, UAF research professor with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), stressed the need for international cooperation. The ACRP focuses on applied research and works on the energy infrastructure that is required for businesses to thrive and survive in the Arctic environment.


Session II: Keynote Address – Highlights and New Initiatives from President Obama’s Visit to the American Arctic


In his keynote address, Dr. John Holdren discussed the vital role of science leadership in the Arctic and examined the most pressing information gaps for this dynamic region.


He said the example of a house in the village of Shishmaref falling into the ocean ensures there is little debate in Alaska about the existence of climate change.


Describing the ACEP, Dr. Holdren said its efforts are directed towards advancing technology and overcoming unforeseen problems.


Energy in Alaska has challenges rooted in climate and land area, with lightly populated communities separated by great distances. As a consequence, building energy infrastructure is amazingly challenging. Many communities rely on diesel-based systems, which provide opportunities for integrating renewable energy.


A microgrid, he explained, is a system where multiple sources generate power, store energy, and manage loads. It can operate alone or be connected to a larger grid or another system.


Connecting microgrid systems to larger grids allows for variability between different energy sources. When cloudy weather, for example, diminishes solar power, wind energy could be substituted. The safety net that connection to larger grids provides isn’t possible in Alaska, so changes in energy sources can have major impacts across the grid. This makes renewable energy implementation challenging. But with 12 percent of the world’s microgrids, Alaska offers a unique business opportunity.


Other subjects Dr. Holdren covered included:

  • Hydrokinetics, generating energy from river power. The biggest difficulty is falling trees and floating debris hitting the river energy devices. ACEP is researching debris diversion and device protection. A test project to evaluate different hydrokinetic systems is underway in Northwest Alaska.
  • Low temperature geothermal energy, which can be used for cooling systems and overall efficiency.
  • Solar Photo Voltaic, which the Northwest Arctic Borough is using to power a water treatment facility. The system is engineered for local flexibility in capturing solar energy. The system was first used in Ambler and is being replicated in the borough. It is feasible because of the summer’s long hours of daylight and a 30 percent reflection from snow-covered ground in the spring. The system will pay for itself in 12.8 years.
  • The usefulness of waste to energy, mostly as a waste management strategy. With the permafrost melting, leachate from dumps and sewage lagoons could seep into the groundwater, impacting local fish species community health.
  • Resilience as it relates to village relocation. Relocation needs to happen now in the Arctic, but other communities globally will be affected as sea levels continue to rise.


Dr. Paul Mayewski, Director and Distinguished Professor of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, began his presentation by saying, “Who would have thought, 25 years ago, that we would be sitting in DC talking about the Arctic?”


Covering glaciology, Dr. Mayewski discussed polar amplification, and climate changes. Since 1979, the climate has experienced tremendous variability. A natural process in the ocean and a similar mechanism in the atmosphere redistributes heat. Most of the variability in these two systems cannot be explained.


With ice cores, storm history can be studied year by year. In Greenland, for example, the climate change paradigm has changed.


The westerly winds that separate cold and warm air used to run on a mostly straight path. But with a reduced ice pack, the air distribution between jet streams became more irregular. Arctic warming is the result of the jet stream flattening.


Questions and Answers for Session I


Regarding permafrost remediation options, one speaker said engineering solutions can deal with permafrost thaw on a very local scale—protecting buildings and roads—but nothing can be done to protect ecosystems from permafrost thaw.


Answering a question about wildfires, an attendee said that forest fires have contributed to warming and will probably continue to do so in the future.


Asked about current work on climate adaptation, the speakers said with community survival at stake, efforts are now underway. The Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA) is being developed to help make the whole population more flexible in dealing with climate challenges.