Report: Human effect on climate raises questions about Arctic’s future

Ice floes on the Barents Sea at sunrise. (iStock)
Ice floes on the Barents Sea at sunrise. (iStock)
As ice sheets melt and thawing permafrost coastlines erode, what archaeological resources will be uncovered and possibly lost to the elements? How does long-term reduction of Arctic sea ice affect extreme weather in the far north, such as major rain-on-snow events and storm surges?

How does the thawing Arctic affect the southern latitudes, and how do events and activities in the southern latitudes affect the Arctic?

Those are among the many subjects of emerging Arctic research that should be studied in the future, said experts who led a National Research Council report issued on Tuesday.

The report, titled “The Arctic in the Anthropocene,” was written by a committee of scientists and Arctic experts from Alaska, Canada and elsewhere. It focuses on what some are considering a new geologic era, beyond the Holocene, in which humans and their activities are driving changes in the Earth’s systems.

Questions about the Arctic

The existing questions about the Arctic — for example, about sea ice coverage, effects of climate warming on wildlife and changes in far-north vegetation, among other topics — remain relevant and “deserve continued attention,” Henry Huntington, senior officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts and co-chairman of the report committee, said in a telephone news conference on Tuesday.

“Existing questions are the ones we have been asking for a while,” said Huntington, who lives in Eagle River. “However, the focus of our task was to look at the emerging questions. These are ones that we’re only able to ask now, things that address newly recognized phenomena or things that have changed so rapidly that we now have the ability or the need to address a question that even five or 10 years we couldn’t even recognize.”

Some new questions arise from “recent results or insights,” thanks to past research, Huntington said. Others arise from “new access” — perhaps physical access to areas newly uncovered by a retreating glacier, or access gained through development of new research technology, such as drones, he said.

“Our mandate here, our scope, was to really try to look ahead,” said Stephanie Pfirman of Barnard College, who co-chaired the committee with Huntington. The report calls for a more holistic approach to future Arctic research, incorporating cultural and social-science studies with the other sciences, she said.

Challenges ahead

Among the report’s recommendations is better sharing of data, including development of a standardized system so that data is “not squired away in the back of some website that nobody looks at in a format that nobody understands,” Huntington said.

There are some challenges that could pose impediments to future research.

There has been some “alarm” expressed about satellites that are currently operating going out of service in the near future, Huntington said. Those satellites have been providing important data for a decade or more, he said.

There are also concerns about deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia, both Huntington and Pfirman said. But the Arctic could be an area where the nations work outside of the dispute over Ukraine and other contentious subjects and “play nice,” Huntington said. “Those relationships on a regional level seem to be pretty smooth, no matter what’s happening between Washington and Moscow,” he said.

The National Research Council is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The report on emerging issues for Arctic research was sponsored by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian and departments of the U.S. government.

Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)

Related Links:

Canada:  The effects of climate change on human health in the North, Radio Canada International

Finland: Climate change affecting Finland’s Arctic hares, Yle News

Greenland:  Greenland’s northeastern ice sheet starting to melt, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland:  Eco-group questions Iceland oil, Deutsche Welle’s Ice-Blog

Norway:  Norway focuses on “Humans in the Arctic,” Deutsche Welle’s Ice-Blog

Russia: Melting permafrost eroding Siberian coasts, Deutsche Welle Ice-Blog

Sweden:  How should Swedes adapt to climate change?, Radio Sweden

United States: Climate-change relocation of Alaska village stops, after state audit finds potential wrongdoing, Alaska Dispatch

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