Ulmer nails it at Arctic Circle conference
A number of familiar Arctic stewards—the people from Alaska who appreciate evidence of climate change and its risks to local and global life—attended the three-day Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland Oct. 7 through 9.
These included former Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, Adm. Robert Papp, former head of the U.S. Coast Guard, and Mead Treadwell, former lieutenant governor of Alaska and former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
The gathering in Reykjavik collects scientists, financiers, maritime safety experts and policymakers under one roof to discuss and share information on geology, oceanography and biomes of the planet affected by the currently documented climate warming, and the need to share all available data.
Research shows that the Arctic is warming faster than mid-globe latitudes, with rapid melting of ice and displacement of sea mammals from their usual habitats. “We often focus on the species in the Arctic that are ice dependent. We look at seals and polar bears and others that we call ice-dependent species,” Fran Ulmer of the United States Arctic Research Commission said in addressing the conference in Reykjavik Oct. 7. “We worry about how rapidly the ecosystems are changing in terms of their survival.
But, “we are all ice dependent species,” Ulmer said. “Every human on this planet is dependent on being able to keep a certain amount of ice at our two poles. [Ice] is the climate regulator. It is like an air conditioner that helps all of us, regardless of where we live, to be able to live on a planet with a livable climate with a sea level that we can accommodate, given our infrastructure and our communities, so when we think of our responsibilities to the Arctic, I want us to think that we, just like the polar bear, are an ice-dependent species. That sense of urgency is what brings us to this meeting.”
Ulmer served as lieutenant governor of Alaska during Gov. Tony Knowles administration from December 1994 to December 2002.
Her public service includes the board of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. President Barack Obama appointed Ulmer to the National Commission on the BP Deep Water Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in 2010 to work on avoiding future disasters.
Scientists are reporting that one-half of the sea ice of the Arctic has melted, due to a variety of causes.
Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences noted that upticks in extreme weather have come along with the disappearing ice. This is important, she said.
“Having lost so much sea ice, we have lost a large fraction of the mirror of the earth,” Francis explained. By losing some of the mirror, “much more of the sun’s energy is being absorbed by the climate system that before would have been reflected back into space and never entered the climate system at all. That is one of the functions of sea ice.”
Another function is “to isolate the ocean from the atmosphere, so having lost that ice means we have much more heat being released into the atmosphere,” Francis said. Thus, loss of sea ice has contributed to the rapid increase in the temperature that scientists and residents are witnessing in the Arctic latitudes, causing the warming in the Arctic to far exceed that in the mid-latitudes.
The rapid heating of the Arctic brought extremes in weather —hot, cold and stormy—especially in 2014, by changing the behavior of the jet stream, according to Francis.
When the Arctic was cold, back in the good old days, and when that has been the case recently, as 2013, we have a very strong and relatively straight flow in the jet stream going west to east.
Jet stream? Jet stream is a band of westerly air currents circling the globe in the upper atmosphere several miles above the earth. Typically, there are a couple of jet streams in each of the northern and southern hemispheres. Melting ice causes the polar jet stream, which affects countries in the Northern Hemisphere, to become weaker.
“When the Arctic heats up, as we have been seeing consistently over the last few decades,” Francis explains, “we see the jet stream taking a much different path as it travels around the Northern Hemisphere moving southward and taking a much more convoluted path. We’re seeing much bigger north-south waves of the jet stream.”
“Those waves in the jet stream control our weather,” Francis continued from the podium at the meeting in Reykjavik. “When those waves get big like that, they tend to move very slowly. When they move very much more slowly, we tend to see our weather patterns change much more slowly as well, so weather becomes much more persistent—think heat waves, think long cold spells.”
Think Alaska’s weather and sea storms eroding the coast and its villages.
Shortly before she attended the Arctic Circle conference, Ulmer had returned from the Arctic Science Ministerial, which met at the White House in Washington D. C. late last month. This meeting collected representatives from 25 countries, the European Union, NOAA, U.S. Science Foundation, indigenous peoples’ representatives and many other agencies that generated 150 proposals associated with four general themes of discussion on Arctic science priorities.
The group signed a joint statement of Arctic science and inclusion of indigenous peoples in understanding and responding to changes in the Arctic that pose threats to livelihoods and ecosystems. The themes address local and global consequences; strengthening and integrating Arctic observations and data sharing; applying deeper understanding of the Arctic to build regional resilience to climate change and to shape global responses; and empowering citizens through STEM education in science, technology, engineering and math, all leveraging Arctic science.
The meeting dealt with the rapid changes in the Arctic, the need for a deeper understanding and how we as human beings are impacting the Arctic. We need to think about what we have in our power to mitigate risks and reduce negative impacts, according to Ulmer.
There is a need “to bring people together to ask the fundamental questions about what we can do collaboratively in the Arctic science world that no one country, no one university, no one bilateral agreement, no one independent entity, whether they be public sector or business sector can do alone?” Ulmer said. There was an all-day discussion of what we could do together, she added.
Adm. Robert Papp, not a stranger in Nome during his tenure as commander of the USCG, spoke on the need for diverse peoples with a variety of interests in the Arctic to share information and goals to meet common challenges. At Papp’s retirement from the USCG, he became special representative of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the Arctic.
Papp took off on a comparison of the Arctic mission to Perry’s expedition in the Arctic in which he depended on Matt Henson, an African American and Inuit from Greenland, a diverse team. Papp went on during his address at the Arctic Circle to reference Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek team, a diverse group featuring “inclusiveness, cooperation and seeking a better life for humanity,” Papp said. He stressed soundly the need to pass down to the next generation the knowledge and leadership in Arctic stewardship.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations appeared as a keynote speaker at the Arctic Circle Assembly. The climate change effecting risks and challenges in the Arctic are real, he said.
“The Arctic is melting before our eyes. The Arctic ice cap is losing ice the size of England. The permafrost is thawing in Canada and Alaska. The fate of the Arctic is affecting [Mumbai], Miami and Shanghai,” he said. “Warming of the planet by 2 degrees [Celsius] could mean 4-5 degrees in the Arctic. Skeptics are being overtaken by events on the ground.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had an additional piece of advice: “Don’t leave it to government. Government leaders have many reasons not to do and to debate this,” he said.
Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, former president of Iceland from 1996 to 2016, chairs the Arctic Circle, a non-profit organization that meets annually.
Grimsson identifies the need for a green energy revolution and climate change as interconnected issues demand an interconnected solution.