The Arctic is being utterly transformed - and we're just starting to learn the consequences

It's the fastest-warming part of the planet — and the impacts will be felt far, far afield. Among many other assorted impacts, the rapidly melting Arctic is expected to flood shorelines as Greenland loses ice more and more rapidly (it contains some 20 feet of potential sea level rise), further pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws, and become a global heat sink as a once ice-covered ocean exposes more and more dark water.

No wonder, perhaps, that on Wednesday, the outgoing Obama administration convened top science policymakers from 25 other Arctic and non-Arctic nations, as well as representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples, in a first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial to coordinate study of what the consequences will be as the Arctic heats up much more rapidly than the more temperate latitudes or the equator.

"The temperature is increasing between 2 and 5 times as fast, depending on where in the Arctic you are," said physicist John Holdren, who heads the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy and is Obama's science adviser, and is chairing the meeting.

[Alaska Natives, international officials gather for White House meeting on Arctic research]

We know this in broad outline, Holdren said, but our knowledge comes up short in many areas when it comes to more precisely observing what is happening in the remote and at times dangerous Arctic region, and being able to run simulations, or computer models, to chart the consequences.

"Basically, the whole Arctic is under-instrumented," said Holdren. "The observation networks are too sparse in geographic extent, they're too discontinuous in time, they're not measuring everywhere all the things they should be measuring. We can't say, for example, how much CO2 and methane emissions from the Arctic are actually going up. We know they are going up but we don't really have a good handle on how fast and from precisely where."

In conjunction with the ministerial, the White House announced the release of a new satellite-based dataset that maps elevations across the Arctic at a resolution of 8 meters, with an expected further improvement to 2 meters next year. This is highly scientifically valuable because it will mean that researchers will be able to remotely detect the slumping of glaciers and permafrost and the vulnerability of different locations to rising seas.


Also on Wednesday, global ministers announced a number of science projects including a new Integrated Arctic Observing System to be put in place by the European Union and a U.S. National Science Foundation project, called "Eyes North," to record and evaluate the large volume of environmental changes being observed by the Arctic's indigenous peoples in and around their communities.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research, meanwhile, is starting a project next year called the Arctic Mobile Observing System to deploy measuring devices atop floating sea ice, or autonomous submersibles below it, to gather better ice and ocean measurements. This, too, was announced Wednesday.

Representatives came to the meeting not only from all the nations with Arctic territory — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia are all members of the Arctic Council, which the U.S. is chairing this year — but also from countries in warmer latitudes, including China, Japan and many European Union states. After all, researchers from around the world are deploying to the Arctic every summer (and sometimes in harsher seasons) to conduct increasingly urgent studies.

In a statement from all these nations' science ministers and Arctic indigenous leaders released by the White House, they stated that "We resolve that all nations conducting research in this region must work together to enhance and deepen scientific knowledge and understanding of the Arctic."

Scientific observers say the show of unity is very important. "The White House [Arctic Science Ministerial] is an important opportunity to focus attention on and mobilize resources for the critical issue of the global consequences of climate change in the Arctic," said Phillip Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center. "These global consequences are potentially calamitous, yet are little known to the public, and the scale of resources being used to address them is nowhere near commensurate to the threat."

To give an example, Holdren discussed in detail, in an interview with The Washington Post, why we don't know precisely how much the Arctic is now contributing to the global burden of greenhouse gases through emissions from thawing permafrost, both on land and, in some places, potentially from beneath the sea.

"We would want to put a large number of sensors to detect local concentrations," he said. "If you get a dense enough picture of local concentrations, you can back calculate to figure out where it must be coming from." That would require, he said, also knowing the atmospheric circulation and making sure instruments are in the right places. It also involves continually measuring the temperatures of permafrost itself.

"If you look at monitoring the temperatures in the permafrost, that monitoring network is much too sparse to understand what's happening overall," Holdren said. "It would be great to be able to predict what the emissions of the permafrost are, or are going to be."

Timed for the ministerial, the World Wildlife Fund Tuesday released a briefing paper by a group of Arctic experts who contemplated what the Arctic would look like in a world where the global average temperature has reached one of the two Paris climate agreement targets — 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In the Arctic, the researchers note, that could translate into an increase of "roughly 4 and even up to 5 degrees C," thanks to the now clearly operative process of Arctic amplification, in which the top of the Earth warms the most rapidly due to feedback processes involving the loss of sea ice and the storage of more warmth in the Arctic ocean.

"For all emissions scenarios, warming and substantial ice loss are projected for the next 20 to 30 years, along with other major physical, biological, and societal changes," the paper notes.

"Without immediate action, the Arctic will continue to unravel, leading to an unstable future, difficult-to-predict interactions with global impacts, and dramatic changes from white, ice-covered, and stable to a new future of instability with abrupt, disruptive changes, difficult-to-predict interactions, and global chain reactions," it later continues.

Studying the Arctic is one thing — ceasing to melt it is something very different. That won't happen soon, if it actually happens in our lifetimes. But it is likely that as the changes accelerate, so will our ability to observe them in near real time — providing a scientific front seat to some of the biggest alterations to a fundamental Earth system that humans have ever seen.