Navigating Tomorrow’s Arctic

No region on the planet is experiencing more dramatic climate change than the Arctic. In recent years, this has resulted in melting glaciers, rapid ecosystem changes, diminishing sea ice, and changes in the atmospheric circulation and ocean properties. Ocean temperatures are increasing due to global warming. In a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures may increase by 8-10 degrees Celsius. Even in the most optimistic scenario for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic will warm several degrees and fundamentally change as we know it today.

The earth’s regions are connected by atmospheric circulation, oceans, climate, and weather patterns. Arctic climate change, therefore, has profound global consequences, contributing to sea level rise, ocean acidification, the release of greenhouse gasses from thawing permafrost, and changing weather patterns, even affecting Asia’s monsoons. Arctic climate change has far-reaching impacts, affecting the weather and climate in regions around the world, including Asia.

Although the development is disturbing, climate change also provides some opportunities. Increased plankton, fish, and other biomass production in the northern waters may become an important resource for the world’s ever-increasing demand for food and proteins. The Arctic’s special role in global change makes it a potential laboratory for developing new green technology, such as electrified fishing vessels, and new solutions with global applications. “What works in the Arctic will work elsewhere” may become a key catchphrase.

An Arctic with less summertime sea ice also presents numerous commercial opportunities. Potential gains include new shipping lanes, bioprospecting, and harvesting marine ingredients such as seaweed for bio-production. Additionally, it may be possible to access new deposits of oil, gas, and minerals. Making the most of these opportunities, however, will require cooperation between industry and the international community and careful management informed by science.

Today, marine species are expanding northward from the south. The fishing fleet has recently taken advantage of this development and fishing grounds are being relocated northwards into the shelves of the Arctic Ocean, especially in the North Atlantic region. This raises the question of whether commercially viable fisheries may emerge in the Arctic Ocean. The area of the Arctic Ocean 200 nautical miles beyond Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the U.S. is 2.8 million square kilometers. Commercial interests may emerge in this vast space, and unless stronger norms and regulations are developed, that competition could create friction between states.

Much work remains to be done, but there have been some positive steps in recent years. As a precautionary action to avoid illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in areas beyond national jurisdiction, the five Arctic coastal states signed an agreement in July 2015 not to fish in this area. Furthermore, a scientific research and monitoring program was established to obtain more knowledge in support for future management. The longer-term goal is that other countries also commit to preventing unreported and unregulated fishing in this area.

But science cautions that commercial fishing could be more limited than some expect. Studies suggest that as Arctic marine systems become warmer, expanding fish stocks will probably migrate into the Arctic Ocean to take advantage of growing food sources. As ice retreats, however, the food sources will shift and so will fish migration patterns. Rather than extending across the Arctic Ocean, future fisheries may be confined to the ocean’s shelves.

Ultimately, the Arctic presents a fundamental challenge for management: the system is highly dynamic with large seasonal changes with respect to temperature, light and ice conditions. We must avoid making decisions and investments for the future based on yesterday’s situation. This calls for a continuously updated knowledge base and sophisticated earth system models to project future changes.

Dr. Jan-Gunnar Winther is the Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

This essay is part of our Big Questions series.