Arctic ice melt could put 1.5 million UK properties at flooding risk: report

A file photo of an iceberg melting in the Nuup Kangerlua Fjord near Nuuk in southwestern Greenland.Greenland’s glaciers have been melting and retreating at an accelerated pace in recent years due to warmer temperatures. If all of that ice melts, sea levels will rise by several meters, affecting coastal communities, and island states like the UK. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The escalating contributions to sea level rise from a warming Arctic could place up to 1.5 million UK properties at risk of flooding and requires enhanced measures across government to address mitigation and better coordinate on Arctic policy, says a report from the UK House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee.

“For too long the effects of a changing Arctic have been ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” James Gray, an MP, and the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research Chair said in comment Friday.

“Before melting glaciers and ice sheets contribute to widespread flooding and irreversible weather patterns in the UK, we must throw our full toolbox at understanding changes in the Arctic better.”

Numerous reports have established the risk of a sea level rise as Arctic ice melts.

“Rising sea levels pose a direct threat to the UK, with up to 1.5 million properties at an increased risk of flooding by 2080,” the report said.

“The increase in floods here at home that will be caused by a changing Arctic will require difficult decisions by the Government.”

Knowledge gaps need to be urgently filled: committee 

The report said the UK is a leader in polar research relative to its size and publishes 10 per cent of research papers on the Arctic, but that grant funding mechanisms when it comes to the North need to focus on long-term and not just short-term projects.

A file photo of the UK’s polar research ship RRS David Attenborough. “To demonstrate the UK’s commitment to its responsibilities in the Arctic, the RRS Sir David Attenborough should voyage to the North Pole,” the report said. “Given that she predominantly operates in the Antarctic, the Government should also consider providing an additional ship for UK scientists and researchers in the Arctic.” (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Among the committee’s recommendations are ensuring scientific monitoring research funding is available for projects that last a minimum of 10 years as well as an institute that could coordinate any Arctic research being done by universities in the UK to avoid duplicating work.

“At the moment, Arctic science is concentrated on its summer, with the Arctic winter – which could tell us an enormous amount about the weather – being under studied,” Gray said. 

“More collaboration is needed among UK universities to avoid repetition of scientific endeavours seeking out the same information, and with our international partners to learn and share resources.”

“Alarmed” by lack of ministers meetings on Arctic 

The committee also recommends the UK appoint a special polar envoy, saying the current distribution of Arctic responsibilities between four Ministers from different Government departments— wasn’t working. 

“Whitehall has not been paying enough attention to the Arctic,” Gray said.

“Four Ministers jotted around different departments with no oversight on Arctic policy is a missed opportunity. The fact the Ministers are yet to meet indicates a lack of enthusiasm on Arctic matters at the heart of Government: they must meet quarterly given the drastic changes we are witnessing in our changing Arctic. The Government should now appoint a polar envoy.”

New fora needed for polar science as Arctic Council loses influence

The report says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent freeze on some 130 Arctic Council research projects involving Moscow has been devastating to polar science and will increasingly hamper the global response to climate change the longer it goes on. 

“Russia has been frozen out of Western Arctic science following its invasion of Ukraine,” Gray said.

“The Arctic Council, built with the purpose of boosting collaboration with Arctic nations, is becoming less influential and much of its important work has stalled. Our loss of access to Russian data is concerning, and 50% of the Arctic is now inaccessible to Western scientists. We must look into alternative international fora to champion and collaborate on Arctic research.”

A file photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023. (Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The committee said Moscow’s increasing cooperation with China in the Arctic since the war is also pushing climate change further down the global agenda.

“Following Russia’s ‘freezing out’ of Arctic Council activity, it has been working with China in the Russian Arctic on oil and gas extraction,” it said.  “The Committee is concerned that the competition for resources and increased military presence by both Russia and NATO in the Arctic is diverting attention away from climate change in the region.”

The government has two months to respond to the committee report.

Comments, tips or story ideas? Contact Eilís at eilis.quinn(at) 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: CSIS warning Inuit leaders about covert foreign investment in Arctic, documents show, CBC News

China: Satellite imagery reveals construction progress on new Chinese Antarctic base, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Danish policy prioritizes low-conflict Arctic amidst Russian tensions, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Nordics should aim for common approach to China’s Arctic involvement says report, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Arctic Council continues steps towards resuming expert group work, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Putin’s Beijing visit underscores China’s support for Russia, including in Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

United Kingdom: Russia’s growing dependence on China altering dynamics in Arctic, UK committee hears, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Russian, Chinese vessels near Alaska reminder of ‘new era of aggression’: Senators, Eye on the Arctic

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