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Fall 2014 Vol. 14 Number 1

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The New Arctic

A Rapidly Changing Climate Opens Door for New Opportunities, But Also Invites New Risks

ŠJohn Hyde/Alaskastock

What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. As average global temperatures rise, this region of the planet is experiencing a loss of ice and snow, thawing permafrost, and shifts in ecosystems, changes that have far-reaching implications around the world, from coastal flooding to food production to our daily weather.

A recent report from the National Research Council highlights new questions that have emerged or might arise in the wake of rapid changes in the Arctic. Because the climate, biology, and societies of the Arctic are transforming in complex and interconnected ways, the report organizes the research questions into five cross-cutting categories.

The "evolving Arctic" focuses on the transition to the new normal of reduced ice and snow and the cascading impacts it will have on environmental and societal systems in the region. The "hidden Arctic" explores what could be found as snow and ice retreat, as well as what could be lost forever. The "connected Arctic" examines how the changes occurring there affect the rest of the northern hemisphere and beyond. The "managed Arctic" aims to understand the implications of human drivers of change such as urbanization, international relations, and industrial and technological development. Finally, the "undetermined Arctic" addresses the need to be prepared to detect and respond to the unexpected.

New Opportunities, New Challenges. Earth's changing climate is increasing the accessibility of the Arctic region to industries such as oil and gas development, shipping, and tourism. Unfortunately, this surge in human activity also increases the possibility of an oil spill.

The Arctic poses unique challenges for responding to oil spills, including extreme weather, limited infrastructure to support spill response operations and communications, and vulnerable species and ecosystems. While much is known about oil behavior and the capabilities of response technologies in ice-covered environments, there is a need to validate current and emerging response tools under these real-world conditions.

Another recent National Research Council report recommends conducting carefully controlled field experiments that release oil into Arctic waters as part of a long-term comprehensive research and development program. When an oil spill occurs, decision makers should use a process that compares the advantages and disadvantages of different response options in order to select the combination of tools that offer the greatest reduction in environmental harm. Key response options include biodegradation, chemical dispersants, in situ burning, and mechanical containment and recovery.

Building Capacity. As areas once ice-bound and inaccessible become available, there is a growing need for infrastructure both to support new research endeavors important for understanding how transitions occurring in the Arctic will affect environments and societies worldwide, and to ensure that the region's species, ecosystems, and communities are protected against an influx of human activity.

Both of the reports call for cooperation and communication among researchers, local, state, and federal decision makers, and international communities to meet their respective goals, and highlight the importance of meaningful engagement with indigenous groups to ensure that traditional knowledge is incorporated into policy decisions and that research is translated back into practicable information.

-- Lauren Rugani

The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions. Committee on Emerging Research Questions in the Arctic, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2014, 224 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-30183-1; $65.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies). The study was co-chaired by Henry P. Huntington, senior officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Eagle River, Alaska, and Stephanie Pfirman, professor of environmental and applied sciences at Barnard College and Columbia University in New York City. The study was funded by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution.

Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment. Committee on Responding to Oil Spills in the U.S. Arctic Marine Environment, Ocean Studies Board and Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies; Marine Board, Transportation Research Board (2014, 210 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-29886-5; $58.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies). The study was chaired by Martha R. Grabowski, chair of the business administration department at LeMoyne College in Cazenovia, N.Y. The study was funded by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, American Petroleum Institute, U.S. Coast Guard, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Marine Mammal Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Both reports are available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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