National Research Council Polar Research Board: “Arctic Matters: the Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic”

A panel of Arctic experts presented the contents of new booklet entitled “Arctic Matters: The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic” during a webinar on April 17, hosted by Jessica Rasmussen.


The speakers were Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette, Professor of Quaternary/Glacial Geology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Barnard College; and Dr. James White, Director of the Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research and Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


Dr. Brigham-Grette said the informational booklet was developed in connection with the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council.


In introducing the booklet’s chapters, she said to remember “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”


Dr. Pfirman reviewed the data about rising Arctic temperatures, rising ocean temperatures, milder winters, declining snow pack, melting glaciers and permafrost, and Arctic sea ice loss.  Ice once extended over the entire Arctic basin, but now in the summer, it’s only found north of Canada.  Much of the Arctic has a ground temperature that is only one or two degrees below freezing; a small change in temperature can have a big impact on the Arctic ecosystem.


Dr. White said sea level rise is caused by melting land ice.  Once it starts, the ice will keep melting and will affect ocean circulation systems.  The jet stream boundary between the colder and warmer parts of the hemisphere will thin.  Storms will move more slowly and cause more damage.


The earth will be caught in feedback loops, where one thing changes causing another change, which feeds back to a larger change.  For example, permafrost melt will create greenery and absorb heat from sunlight.  Carbon accumulates in the cold areas of world.  In the Arctic, the frozen carbon will decay at faster rates, releasing gas into the atmosphere in amounts that will rival fossil fuels.


The speakers summarized the factors driving change in the Arctic, which include more industry interest in Arctic oil & gas extraction, the Northern Sea Route and possible shipping across the top of the North Pole, increased tourism, potential oil spills, and disputes over northern national security interests.  Arctic residents will also be faced increasingly with the need to evaluate development proposals for their impacts on their regions.


Dr. Brigham-Grette said a public forum or symposium on “Arctic Matters” will be held early next year—likely at the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, D.C.—as part of a public outreach effort initiated by the U.S. State Department.  It will be aimed at laypeople with the hope that it will draw people not normally engaged in Arctic issues.  Co-sponsors and conference planners are welcome to help with the organizing.


The following comments were offered during the question and answer period:

  • People are encouraged to quote from the booklet. All of the information it contains was drawn from National Research Council reports, which are available online.
  • The booklet is readable at the middle school level. Additional educational resources can be linked to its use.
  • The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on earth because the reflective white surface is being replaced by a dark surface.
  • The atmosphere can be manipulated to affect climate change. Substances can be injected into the atmosphere and fields of white reflectors can be laid over the land which can change greenhouse gas amounts and change reflectivity.  Scientists say the best solution is to stop releasing harmful substances into atmosphere and then remove what’s there.
  • Disappearing Arctic ice and more ocean acidification could result in more productivity, initially. This is an area that needs further research.
  • Scientists understand the permafrost melting rate, but not the release of methane. Carbon release occurs over decades, not abruptly.  New data has not yet been fully incorporated into the models.
  • Northern archeology has been affected in that ancient village sites are being revealed by melting ice. More stone tools are being found.  Information is being collected about how indigenous people adapted to past climate change.  At the same time, more coastal communities and archeological sites are vulnerable to coastal erosion.
  • Current Arctic research budgets are not sufficient for all of the ideas put forward. The social and physical sciences are intertwined in the Arctic.
  • Unfortunately, today’s trend is less funding for research. NOAA greenhouse monitoring was cut by 33 percent, meaning lost observation ability, fewer ocean warming observations, and an inability to keep up with new observations.

The “Arctic Matters” booklet can be downloaded here.