The Impact and Effects of Climate Change in a Rapidly-Changing Arctic: Insights from a Science-Policy Perspective

At a climate change presentation at Georgetown University in Washington DC on Nov. 10, Thomas R. Armstrong, President of the Madison River Group, used a science policy perspective to provide insights about the changing Arctic.


Focusing primarily on the physical and human aspects of climate change, he also discussed how Arctic science is affected by policy and decision making. An effective, climate-change oriented policy strategy—which is still needed—would include both long term mitigation options and short term mitigation actions.


With the first derivative of Arctic change defined as the change itself, Armstrong discussed the second derivative, which is actual change in the rate of change. He said everything is speeding up in the Arctic, not just climate change, but many other kinds of major change drivers, too, including land use cover and demographics. Populations are increasing in some parts of the Arctic.


The Arctic is one of the few ecosystems on the planet where the impacts of human-induced climate change can actually be seen today. The impacts are not just modeled projections or hypothetical scenarios of pathways to the future.


The longer the world goes without legally binding climate change agreements and without lowering carbon emissions, successful adaptation at any scale becomes less likely along with an increasing risk of maladaptation.


While adaption efforts across the landscape are underway, the absence of decision verification and performance evaluation will prevent anyone from determining if adaptation measures are actually working.


Sweden and Finland have a lot of examples of emerging maladaptation because of how rapidly the second derivative rate of change is increasing.


Adaptation and mitigation can’t be separated from each other, and must be used together to be effective, Armstrong said.


Showing the audience a time sequence illustration that used forensic geology to provide back calculations on models, Armstrong described how most carbon emissions, starting in 1751, came from England and Western Europe and were measured in metric tons per year. In the 1800’s, the U.S. started to contribute to emissions. Other parts of the world— such as Japan, East India, and the Middle East—also started to contribute. In the 1900’s, millions of metric tons of carbon began to be measured throughout the world.


Atmospheric carbon emissions today are unequivocally not a part of the geologic process.

According to Armstrong, the five major first order impacts of climate change in the Arctic are: sea level rise, sea ice loss; extreme weather events; ocean acidification; and permafrost and the resulting climate feedbacks.


He noted that the Arctic warms two to three times faster than the global mean. Elaborating on this, he said the Yamal region in Russia has a projected mean annual temperature increase of 6.5 to 7.5 degrees Celsius by the late 21st century. A 7.5 degree increase is predicted for Canada, and only a 4.5 degree increase in Alaska.


Breaking down these annual temperature rise predictions into seasons, he stated that in the winter in Northern Alaska and Northwest Canada there will be an 11 – 13 degrees Celsius mean seasonal temperature increase.


While a lot of change always occurs in the summer, the winter has always been the “buffering” season -or a resilience mechanism – that protects the Arctic from all of the summer changes.


Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise in and of itself is not a major issue, but what happens in the Arctic regarding sea level rise affects more than just the Arctic. The loss of terrestrial ice in Greenland, for example, will have a major impact globally.


The impact will be felt in areas with strategic value, such as Virginia Beach and the Norfolk basin area, where the U.S. Navy maintains facilities for vessel maintenance and refueling. Sea level rise could inundate a lot of the region and make it difficult to use for military purposes.


Discussing the implications of sea level rise for the Alaska coastline, Armstrong said the sediments that were previously held together by permafrost are now destabilized, and that the absence of ice buffering has increased wave-caused erosion. In the village of Shishmaref, on Alaska’s northwest coast, land can retreat by 10-20 meters a day. From a single storm, up to 150-200 meters of land can be lost. On a global scale, by the end of this century, 150-400 million people living in coastal zones will be affected by sea level rise.


Another interesting factor Armstrong mentioned is the role of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the countries affected by sea level rise. Along the coast of Africa, for example, eight million people will be impacted, but the actual cost of the damage will be the equivalent of $6 billion. In contrast, sea level changes in the U.S. could impact four million people directly, but would cost of $103 billion.


In the U.S., the impact is already noticeable in places like Miami Dade County. Storm surge has washed water into sewage treatment facilities and public water supply utilities that are located within 200 meters of the shoreline. Florida state and county officials have no good plans for adapting to a rising sea level.


Sea Ice Loss – opening of the Seaway

From science records and observations, sea ice quantities were rather stable from the 1800’s onward. But, in 1950, the pattern changed and the decline started to accelerate upwards through the present.


Armstrong emphasized that this is not just a loss of sea ice cover, but of sea ice volume.

The model projections for an open Northern passage indicate that ships could sail through unobstructed waters straight through the Arctic. However, the waterways will not be completely open, they will still be filled with icebergs, making navigation a very high risk activity. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Polar Code would require transiting ships to be prepared for Arctic conditions and to be equipped with safety materials that are suited to the environment.


The loss of multi-year ice will also impact the polar bear population, he said. Seals—the primary food source for polar bears—make their dens in multi-year ice. With less multi-year ice, seals retreat to land, where there are other land mammals. This results in more competition for polar bears for food, and will cause polar bear mortality to rise.


Extreme Weather Events

Armstrong discussed how multiple factors can make extreme weather events even more daunting, a reminder that each phenomena can’t be considered in isolation. With Hurricane Sandy, for example, the Polar Vortex kept high winds in the Northeast U.S. for a longer than usual period.

Ocean Acidification

Armstrong said ocean acidification is often not considered to be an Arctic-related topic. But, all of the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere have to be deposited somewhere. Some emissions are sequestered into the soil, while a lot goes into the ocean, where it can have negative effects such making the water more acidic.


In the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment program, the conclusion was that the oceans haven’t been as acidic as they are today since the age of the dinosaurs.


Fisheries stocks are affected by acidification. Shellfish—part of the aquatic food web’s basic foundation—are suffering from calcium carbonate degradation. The rapid reduction in sea ice will lead to even more of the direct absorption of carbon dioxide into the deep ocean.

Armstrong added that commercial fishing stocks are declining and aquaculture stocks can’t keep up with supply and demand needs.


With changes in ocean pH levels, many fish species are moving from traditional southern areas into far northern waters. One example is Atlantic cod, now found increasingly in the Barents Archipelago.


Thawing Permafrost

When permafrost melts, huge amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. A lot of infrastructure—buildings, runways, military installations, gas facilities, etc.—has been and will be damaged when the frozen ground that it sits on thaws.


Climate commitment was another major element that Armstrong explored. Because of energy physics, the changes that are occurring now won’t stop even if humans suddenly changed their behavior. Most of the respected climate scientists say that the effects of temperature increases will continue at least until mid-century.


With fairly aggressive mitigation efforts, some scientists believe that two degree emission rates are achievable. Armstrong said he doesn’t believe that, however, and that instead, the global average will increase by three to four degrees Celsius.


Another relatively new option that Armstrong discussed is climate engineering – the physical removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – not just a reduction in emissions. Several major experiments have been conducted, but they have all gone awry. Because the research is incomplete, the problems of mega- experiments in the atmosphere are not truly understood, and the resulting secondary problems may be even more harmful than the warming trend.


Armstrong said he is an advocate of microscale experiments that can be transferred to macroscale in order to better understand what kinds of climate engineering strategies would work and how to avoid unintended consequences.


The more time that passes without mitigation or adaptation, he predicted, the more people will look at climate engineering as a solution.


The truth of the matter is that the world needs to move into a new paradigm, he said. It needs integrated policy approaches that combine mitigation with adaptation and climate engineering.


The main governance issues involve using knowledge for strategic decisions. Adaptive management feedback needs to occur between those responsible for the science agenda and those in charge of performance analysis. The collaborative science-based decision-making enterprise consists of collaborative consultation, science translation, and decision support.

Asked which existing institution could be used to achieve the stated goals, Armstrong said that many institutions have a problem with departmentalization, i.e. the array of tools to address the problem are scattered among different agencies.


An institutional bias exists that the federal government knows the best way to translate science into decision making. But, that needs to change in order come up with novel approaches and engage in creative thinking. Many academic and private sector ideas have not yet been tapped. New public-private partnerships need to be created in order to effectively deal with the problem.


He compared the decisions that need to be made to turning around a motor boat, something that needs to happen quickly. In contrast, the federal government turns like an aircraft carrier, taking up more time and space and dealing effectively with the problem.

If public-private partnerships were designated as the institutions to solve the problem, Armstrong said, the process could be turned into a competition, fostering the best of humankind’s ingenuity.