Obama visit brings new attention to Arctic

This was a view of the ice in the sea north of Deadhorse from the cockpit of a U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Domain Awareness flight out of Kodiak on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (Kamala Kelkar / Alaska Dispatch News)
This was a view of the ice in the sea north of Deadhorse from the cockpit of a U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Domain Awareness flight out of Kodiak on Tuesday, July 14, 2015.
(Kamala Kelkar / Alaska Dispatch News)
Climate scientists said Tuesday they hope President Obama’s visit to Alaska and next week’s State Department-organized Anchorage conference on climate and Arctic issues will draw the world’s attention to the Arctic and how it is changing.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The Arctic matters hugely for its own sake, particularly for the 4 million people who live in the Arctic, but it matters to everyone because of its impacts beyond the Arctic,” Karen Florini, the State Department’s deputy special envoy for climate change, said in a teleconference hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The earth depends on a cold Arctic to regulate its global climate, and the glaciers, permafrost and sea ice that exist at the top of the world play critical roles in conditions around the world, she and other scientists said in the teleconference.

Presidential visit brings attention to issues

Those Arctic features are now “unraveling,” said Rafe Pomerance, a former State Department environmental official who now chairs a coalition of nongovernmental organizations focused on Arctic climate change.

That is why he has high expectations for the upcoming GLACIER conference, a high-level international meeting to be held in Anchorage next Monday.

“I think that the GLACIER meeting is potentially a turning point,” said Pomerance, who is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Polar Research Board. “If we can pay attention to the unraveling of the Arctic and all the trends, we will have a very different climate debate going forward.”

He also has high expectations for the president’s journey around Alaska, particularly a planned trip to Seward and the melting glaciers there at Kenai Fjords National Park.

“He’s going to be able to draw attention to the profound changes that are going on, the rate of those changes and the consequences for the Lower 48 and the rest of the world,” Pomerance said. “The image of the president of the United States standing by those glaciers is one that may have an enormous amount of power going forward.”

Arctic amplification

Far south of the Arctic, in the population centers of the world’s temperate latitudes, the Arctic matters because it may be triggering increasingly frequent extreme weather events, said Rutgers University research scientist Jennifer Francis.

Francis, also a member of the Polar Research Board, is studying the phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification” — the warming that is far faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world — and its connection to weather and extreme events in the earth’s middle latitudes.

“We know the Arctic is warming much faster than everywhere else,” she said in the teleconference. “We think this is causing the jet stream to take a wavier path as it travels around. When it does so, it creates some pretty unusual weather patterns.”

Climate, fisheries and emergency response

Those wavy and meandering jet stream movements are linked to persistent and “stuck” weather patterns and extreme events, like flooding in Europe, bitter cold and snow in the U.S. Northeast and extended drought in California, Francis said.

Patterns are poised to get even more unusual, she said. The warming Arctic is likely to interact with other forces — a potent El Nino, a persistent “Blob” of warm water that has lingered since 2013 in the eastern Pacific and other natural events.

“I think a very interesting situation is unfolding this winter as we see a very warm Arctic, a near record-low sea ice amount and a record-strong El Nino,” she said. “We’re in uncharted territory here. We’ve never had something like this happen before. So it’s going to be a very interesting fall and winter.”

The GLACIER conference is not entirely about climate change, Florini said. There are sessions on other issues important to Alaska and the Arctic, such as fisheries and emergency response, she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Asia:  Asia ahead on preparing for polar climate change, says U.S. Arctic rep, Eye on the Arctic

Canada: The Arctic Council – What was accomplished and where we go from here, Eye on the Arctic

China: China’s silk road plans could challenge Northern Sea Route, Blog by Mia Bennett

Denmark:  The return of the Arctic Five, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Finland: US seeks Finnish support for Arctic goals, Yle News

Norway:  China eyes Arctic Norway infrastructure projects, Barents Observer

Russia:  The Arctic Council’s Immunity to Crimean Flu, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Sweden:   Arctic Council – From looking out to looking in, Blog by Mia Bennett, Cryopolitics

United States:  Obama’s upcoming Alaska visit: Climate & the Arctic, Alaska Dispatch News

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