The new Arctic

The UK’s Natural Environment Research Centre supported Arctic research centre is based at Ny-Alesund, on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard. Led by the station commander Nick Cox, scientists are undertaking ongoing research into the cryosphere to better understand its features and how it is changing.

Adapting to the ‘new’ Arctic

Watch this 15 minute video, produced by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP): Snow, water, ice and permafrost in the Arctic

The previous section, Climate change, highlighted some of the changes facing the Arctic cryosphere as a result of climate change. The ‘Snow, water, ice and permafrost in the Arctic’ film focusses on how these changes impact on human populations in the Arctic region. The film was made in 2011 but the challenges and opportunities for these people remain the same; they are having to adapt to a ‘new’ Arctic.

Aaju talks about climate change in Nunavat

Auju Peters talk about the changes to the climate at Iqaluit, Nunavat caused by changing wind direction and coastal currents.

Indigenous people are amongst those who see the impact of these changes most obviously. Many indigenous people have adapted to a more settled lifestyle. However, a sizeable number still spend a lot of time in the open Arctic and have a lifestyle which means that they are likely to see changes in watercourses, ground surfaces and the extent of sea ice.

Changes that have been observed:

  • Snow cover extent and duration is reducing all over the Arctic
  • Glaciers are melting and retreating at an unprecedented rate
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet is getting smaller
  • Permafrost is thawing
  • Sea ice is diminishing in thickness and extent

Another impact of the reduction in sea ice is increased coastal erosion, such as that which is occurring in Barrow, Alaska.

How is Barrow, Alaska being affected?

In the video ‘Snow, water, ice and permafrost in the Arctic’, Mayor Edward S. Itta of North Slope Borough, Alaska explains the reasons for the increased threat of coastal erosion (see 04’32” into the movie). Usually, lower temperatures mean the coastline of the North Slope has shore-fast ice clinging along it, this means waves are further out to sea and are unable to reach the shore. Houses in Barrow are built near to the shore to provide a view over the sea ice.

With the reduction in sea ice, waves are now reaching the shore, and a large fetch means that they have the potential to increase levels of erosion. This uncovers the frozen ground beneath the surface, and as a result, permafrost is melting beneath the bank, increasing the rates of erosion. Homes are close to the sea front and may need to be relocated.

Barrow’s location means that any construction is very expensive, and therefore coastal defensive works have to be kept to a minimum.

  • The period between 2011 and 2015 was the warmest recorded in the Arctic since records began in 1900.
  • The early months of 2018 saw the longest period of unseasonably warm temperatures in the Arctic region for 50 years.

Challenges and opportunities

The 2017 SWIPA report (see pages 14 and 15) also summarises the challenges and opportunities of the ‘new’ Arctic for Arctic communities. As well as coastal erosion, it highlights the increased frequency of events and hazards such as avalanches, floods, wildfire, landslides, and food and water security. However, it also suggests that potential opportunities may arise from a reduction in sea ice and a longer open water season, for example improving access for marine shipping, tourism and fisheries, enabling the harnessing of hydropower, and exposing previously inaccessible resources such as oil.

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Make a list

  • Make a list of the potential challenges and another list of the potential opportunities outlined in this report.