A stepped-up U.S. sense of urgency on rapid change in the Arctic?


Aerial view of summer ice (photo: U.S. Army CRREL)

Secretary of State Clinton gives the U.S. high-level representation on the eight-nation Arctic Council at its biannual meeting in Greenland this week. Will the Council start moving from talk to action to address drivers of rapid Arctic warming, accelerating loss of sea ice, and growing development pressures on fragile Arctic natural resources and ecosystems?

The Washington Post reported on May 12 (May 11 online):

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touched down Wednesday on Greenland’s rocky, snow-flecked coast for two days of talks on the Arctic, as the Obama administration seeks to draw attention to the rapidly accelerating loss of sea ice and surging interest in the region’s natural resources.

Rapid warming above the Arctic Circle has led to shorter winters and a dramatic thinning of Arctic ice in the past two decades, and new scientific data suggest that the rate of polar melting has accelerated far beyond what scientists had forecast a few years ago. One study, the conclusions of which were released last week, predicts that the resulting rise in global sea levels could reach as much as five feet by the end of the century. …

Much of the policy debate over global warming has focused on the role of carbon dioxide emissions, which are caused by fossil-fuel burning and remain trapped in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But, with its initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has been compelled to explore alternative ways to slow Arctic warming that do not require United Nations-brokered treaties or complex cap-and-trade scenarios.

At this week’s meetings in Greenland, attended by diplomats of the Arctic Council, Clinton will be joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Aides said they plan to highlight the role played by “black carbon” — essentially soot from inefficient combustion, such as natural gas flaring, wood stoves and the controlled burning of agricultural waste.

Such pollutants play an outsize role in Arctic warming, scientists say, essentially causing ice to melt faster than can be explained by rising temperatures alone. …

Also see “Hillary Clinton Takes Seat at Arctic Council” (New York Times, online Green blog, May 12.

Melting ice edges (photo: U.S. Army CRREL)

And see the full text of this excellent post by Kiley Kroh at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, which includes this (excerpt):

Turning Up the Heat on Emerging Arctic Challenges – Secretary Clinton Leads Delegation to Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting

Clinton will be the first secretary of state to ever attend an Arctic Council meeting, underscoring its importance for achieving substantive agreements on the myriad challenges facing the region.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Warming seas mean less ice, which means increased access for shipping, fishing, and oil and gas extraction in one of the last unexploited regions of the planet. The council has not kept pace with the rate of change occurring in the region to date and, as a result, there is an overwhelming lack of unified, strategic management structures, particularly on the issues of climate change and drilling in the Arctic.

At the meeting, member states—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, as well as representatives of the Arctic indigenous populations—will address several issues regarding the role of the council and how these nations can work together to address the effect the rapidly changing Arctic will continue to have on the environmental, economic, and national security interests of each nation. The formal agenda includes the signing of an Arctic search-and-rescue coordination treaty—noteworthy as the first legally binding agreement to be signed by the eight member nations—which will hopefully pave the way for similar agreements on more controversial issues.

Climate change

One such contentious concern is the impact of climate change on the Arctic. The Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic assessment, conducted by the council’s scientific arm, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, found that observed effects of climate change in the Arctic are much more extensive and rapid than scientists predicted.  …

Offshore drilling 

Another critical discussion item will be Secretary Clinton’s push for an Arctic oil spill response task force. Almost a fifth of the world’s remaining oil and gas is thought to lie north of the Arctic Circle, much of it offshore, and with gas prices rising, oil companies are eager to tap into the potential riches. The Arctic, however, is unlike any other region in which these companies are currently drilling.  Twenty-foot swells, subzero temperatures, weather that can ground aircraft for days or weeks, and a complete lack of infrastructure make a spill of any size more likely and nearly impossible to clean up. 

A spill anywhere in the Arctic could take years to clean up and would be catastrophic to the entire region. …

Earlier CSW posts:

U.S. National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts “Call for Action by U.S. Naval Leadership”

“Warm Arctic – Cold Continents”

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