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Rapid Arctic warming has global effects

U.S. Arctic Research Commission Chair Fran Ulmer links Arctic science and policy.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
November 10, 2016
Polar bear standing on an ice flow
A polar bear sniffs on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean above Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Shutterstock

Seasoned Arctic strategy expert Fran Ulmer brought science and policy together in a wide-ranging lecture that laid out the importance of Arctic climate to the rest of the world. Rapid warming in the region is affecting everything from shellfish farming and infrastructure collapse to biodiversity loss and weather changes, she said.

Ulmer made her remarks to a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200 people at the annual Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 7. Co-sponsored with Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the event brings together faculty, students, and staff around a topic of broad scientific interest. She presented a comprehensive overview of the Arctic region, including climate history, economic impacts, and the current state of research and policy.

Out of sight, out of mind

“The Arctic is a place that is kind of out of sight, out of mind for many Americans,” said Ulmer, who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent agency that advises the federal government on domestic and international Arctic research.

Fran Ulmer

Fran Ulmer. Credit: Chris Arend

Prior to being appointed to the commission by President Barak Obama in 2011, Ulmer served as an elected official in Alaska for 18 years as the mayor of Juneau, a state representative, and lieutenant governor. She also served as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Stanford Earth sophomore China Kantner, who is from Alaska, said she was excited to attend the lecture partly because Ulmer, the first woman elected to statewide office in Alaska, is “a superstar” in her home state.

“It was very disheartening to learn that my favorite place in the world is warming faster than the rest of the Arctic,” said Kantner, an Earth Systems major. “Beyond that, it was a good primer on how international politics works in the Arctic.”

The United States represents only one of eight Arctic nations with specific agendas for the region, including national security and economic development. One of the biggest factors driving the decision-making process is the loss of sea ice caused by climate change.

In some ways, we are all ice-dependent species. If it becomes too much warmer and we lose too much more ice, it has profound implications to society.

“We continue to break records on a monthly basis in terms of either how slow or how fast spring comes or goes,” Ulmer said. “In October, we are seeing the formation of ice happen so slowly that this whole area above Alaska is ice-free – and in October, it shouldn’t be.”

Profound implications

The Arctic has been warming about twice as quickly as the rest of the planet and its effects can be felt worldwide. Research thus far shows the warming Arctic impacts weather patterns as far away as mid-latitude areas like California by weakening the jet stream, Ulmer said. Colder water in the Pacific Northwest is becoming more acidic and unstable for farming shellfish, while melting permafrost and coastal erosion in Alaska is causing infrastructure collapse and loss of biodiversity.

“For the people of the Arctic that rely very heavily on a relatively stable ecosystem, these changes have profound implications,” Ulmer said. “You can no longer count on being able to harvest the same species in the same ways at the same time that have been harvested for literally thousands of years.”

Room for optimism

Yet Ulmer presented a hopeful outlook for research in the Arctic. She said she was encouraged that the U.S. government issued an Arctic policy in 2013 outlining three areas of focus: advancing U.S. security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation.

Click the image above to view the talk on Facebook live. Credit: Barbara Buell

Issuing the strategy increased activity in the region and focused federal agencies in a more coordinated way – not only on Alaska, but on its role in the Arctic, she said. International interests include the potential for new shipping routes, fisheries, tourism, mining, and gas. Russia is heavily promoting the idea of a new northern sea route as the “route of the future,” she said.

“Almost every day – because I read a lot of news about the Arctic – there is an additional expression of interest about the Arctic by some country, some organization, whether it’s Canada, Greenland, Norway, Alaska,” Ulmer said. “It remains to be seen what kind of development will take place.”

During the Q&A, an audience member asked about the role of China in the region. Ulmer responded with optimism, referencing China’s interest in research, commerce, and securing resources, such as drinking water lost by ice melt in the Himalayas. China is “increasingly engaged, and constructively,” she said.

Ulmer concluded the lecture by reminding audience members that maintaining a certain amount of ice on the planet is essential to everyone.

“In some ways, we are all ice-dependent species,” Ulmer said. “If it becomes too much warmer and we lose too much more ice, it has profound implications to society, to the stability of society, to sea-level rise, to many other things we have come to assume represents normal.”

For more information on the role of the United States in the Arctic, visit www.arctic.gov.