Climate change in the Arctic – an early warning for the world
Continued commitment to climate research
At COP22, Nordic countries have joined forces in presenting their climate efforts at the Nordic Pavilion, New Nordic Climate Solutions. A strong focus on R&D has been essential for the progress in decarbonising the region’s energy systems, and the countries remain committed to funding interdisciplinary research into climate change. Given the region’s geographical position, enhancing competence and co-operation on Arctic climate research is a key NordForsk priority.
NordForsk’s Arctic Theme Day featured presentations about the role of the Arctic in the changing climate, data collection and knowledge from Arctic observation networks and research infrastructure, as well as examples of Nordic solutions for renewable energy, bioeconomy and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Furthermore, NordForsk presented efforts to attract and train new generation researchers in addressing climate change and meeting future societal challenges.
“The Arctic is warming at more than double the pace of the rest of the world,” said Lars Otto Reiersen, Executive Secretary of AMAP, a working group under the Arctic Council responsible for monitoring and assessing the effect of pollution and climate change in Arctic ecosystems. “If we continue on a business-as-usual path, we’ll see a 12-degree temperature increase in the Arctic. By taking action based on a 4.5 degree global scenario, the increase in the Arctic would be 6 degrees.”
Research into the effects associated with Arctic climate change focuses on issues such as changes in cryosphere, ocean acidification and the impacts of black carbon and other short-lived climate forcers on the Arctic region. Reiersen warned that precipitation and evaporation in the Arctic is expected to increase considerably with rising temperatures, affecting global sea rise.
“The Arctic is an early warning location and the impacts of those changes are being felt outside of the Arctic as well,” said Jason Box, Research Professor in Geology at GEOS, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, and contributing author to the last two IPCC Assessment reports.
Interdisciplinary Nordic research in the Arctic region
NordForsk has supported a wide range of collaborative, multidisciplinary research initiatives in the Arctic, notably through the Nordic Top-level Research Initiative (TRI). NordForsk recently awarded NOK 112 million to four new Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoE) in Arctic research.
“One key objective has been to provide a holistic approach to Arctic climate research,“ says Torben Christensen, Professor at Lund University and chair of NCoE DEFROST, an initiative funded under TRI. “We’ve studied the declining sea ice and snow cover, as well as ecosystem processes on land and possible feedback effects from the surface in terms of greenhouse gas and energy exchanges.”
NCoE DEFROST has worked towards improving data on the large amount of carbon currently locked up in the soils of the circumpolar Arctic region and analysing the potential of CO2-release into the atmosphere with increased permafrost thaw. The newly established NCoE CLINF addresses a related issue – the concern for climate-sensitive infections.
“NCoE CLINF aims to clarify the health impacts of climate change on humans, animals and animal husbandry household,” says Anders Koch, specialist in infectious diseases. “We intend to develop statistical and biophysical models that relate these changes to the likely spread of climate sensitive infections and the potential societal health risks in the Nordic economies and culture.”
Sustainable economic development and energy
“Climate change is opening up the Arctic for economic development, which is going to have significant implications for fragile ecosystems, ecosystem services and human well-being,” said Brynhildur Davíðsdóttir, Professor of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Iceland. She gave a talk about the importance of identifying sustainable pathways to facilitate economic development at a minimum environmental cost, as well as the trade-offs between environment and economy when developing the energy system in the Arctic region.
“Sustainable development of Arctic energy resources is absolutely necessary for blue and green growth and human well-being. Examples from the Nordic countries show that large-scale development of renewable energy resources is possible and affordable, and also that this is likely to lead to long-term prosperity. Now we just need brave decision makers to make it happen.”
Nordic regional research institute Nordregio has conducted several studies into sustainable development of the circular bioeconomy, focusing in particular on its potential to boost the economy in rural areas of the Nordic-Arctic regions.
“The bioeconomy substitutes fossil fuels, reduces climate impacts and improves resource efficiency by promoting increased reuse and recovery of biological resources,” said Nordregio Research Fellow Anna Berlina. “It contributes to regional and rural development through job creation and diversification of the rural economies, and makes a significant contribution to energy security. A sustainable bioeconomy contributes to social, environmental and economic bottom lines.”
Robust core training and Interdisciplinarity
The complexity of climate change and sustainable development of the Arctic region requires an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research approach. Apart from emphasising collaboration between different research disciplines in its funded projects, NordForsk encourages a similar approach to the training of a new generation of researchers.
Tim Horstkotte belongs to this new generation. A postdoctoral researcher at Umeå University in Sweden, he has been involved in two of NordForsk’s NCoEs, TUNDRA, a project funded under TRI addressing how to preserve the tundra in a warmer climate, and NCoE ReiGN – Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North, studying the ecological, economic and social dimensions that affect reindeer husbandry in the Nordic countries. The research naturally crosses borders.
“Reindeer husbandry is one of the unifying keystones in the region, as it represents a long shared cultural history between the Nordic countries,” Horstkotte said. “It’s important for research to deal with the mismatch between ecological and socio-political boundaries, because this fragmentation might create damage to the ecosystems that we want to preserve.”
According to Davíðsdóttir, the education training systems must keep pace with the rapid changes in the world and the environment.
“We need interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary training to find solutions to these issues that are way beyond the ability of any one discipline to deal with,” she says. “However, we must not forget that our young scholars have to have robust core training.”
“If you’re going to do research on sustainable energy development, you need to understand the physics of the resource you’re working with, and also know and understand the technologies. But at the same time, we need to be able to analyse the impact of transitioning energy systems on the social and the environmental aspects, as well as on the economics of the situation.”
Text: Páll Tómas Finnsson
Photo: Terje Heiestad