Climate Change in the Arctic

Prof. Amanda Lynch's engagement with government, business and communities enables better responses to a rapidly changing climate

Image by flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


The global climate is a complex agent of change, and nowhere is this better exemplified than at the Arctic ice edge. The precipitous decline in Arctic summer sea ice extent has attracted widespread attention from both the scientific community and the general public. In the most recent decade, summer minimum sea ice extent has retreated to levels not seen in the satellite record. The decline has been both sooner and more rapid than had been expected based on global climate model scenarios.

Iconic Arctic fauna – polar bears, whales, snowy owls – capture the imagination of millions around the world. But species-poor and geographically-limited Arctic ecosystems lack functional redundancy and so are vulnerable to the cascading effects of many stresses. The species that fail will be those that cannot respond to changing geographic ranges and seasonal cycles, and to competitors from the south. These species may become locally, regionally or globally extinct.

What happens in the Arctic has far-reaching implications. Loss of snow and ice increases the rate of climate change and is the largest contributor to expected global sea level rise. Ten percent of the world’s fish catches come from Arctic and subarctic waters. Oil and gas development is increasing in the Arctic, where a study by the US Geological Survey suggests that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of natural gas resources will likely be found. The systematic ice retreat also presents an opportunity to routinely access the Northern Sea Route instead of the Suez Canal, cutting international shipping distances by as much as 40%. The security implications are significant: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and China have all staked or signalled sometimes conflicting territorial and access claims in the region.

Even in a summer ice free Arctic Ocean — a transition projected to occur as early as 2035 — shale oil, fracking, cheap coal and advances in green energy, as well as unprecedented technological and security challenges connected to production, may still render Arctic hydrocarbon reserves economically nonviable. Benefits of the already thinner ice to shipping have not accrued at the expected rate, because of unpredictability of the ice conditions and the navigable season. In particular, as the ice retreats, operators will face continued hazards from drift ice, icebergs and increased storminess.

Policy Engagement

This nexus of change, opportunity and risk at the ice edge raises the critical question of how scientific insights can yield actionable knowledge. Amanda focuses on the significant ice, atmosphere and ocean processes that drive Arctic ice variability in the context of anthropogenic climate change. Her research has demonstrated a dynamic and thermodynamic interplay that keeps cyclones and ice edge coupled in space and time. This understanding is critical for coastal villages in the Arctic, where a retreating ice edge was suggesting to planners and emergency managers that severe storms would, too, withdraw to the north. Demonstrating this is not the case, this research promoted a new regime of preparedness for flooding and erosion without the protection of shorefast ice.

Understanding intra-seasonal ice variability is critical for safe, efficient and effective shipping, exploration and drilling operations in the Arctic. The stranding of the oil rig Kulluk in 2012 in the Gulf of Alaska was the result of many interacting factors, including poor decision-making, but it also occurred in the context of sea ice that retreated weeks later than expected. The ongoing quest for time sensitive decision support for technically feasible navigation routes for a range of vessels from ice hardened rigs like the Royal Dutch Shell Kulluk to oil tankers on the Northern Sea Route, such as the Finnish Uikku, to ice breaking polar research ships, such as the USCGC Healy. A combination of models that enable improved intra-seasonal ice forecasting and that demonstrate relationships between ice variance and marginal costs is now possible using the technical developments led by Amanda’s research team.

Policy Outcomes

Climate change research has focused on the expected conditions in 2050 or 2100, and ways to avoid or adapt to such conditions. The motivation of Amanda’s research is to consider the difficulties presented by a rapidly changing climate, now and in the near future, as increased variability leads to immediate challenges. Her motivation is to support informed choices to improve livelihoods and environments of vulnerable people and places. Her work has led to outcomes in local communities, such as improvements in emergency management procedures, zoning regulations and weather forecasting in Barrow, Alaska. Her advice to, for example, the US Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation and the National Research Council has led to a renewed appreciation of the challenges presented by a dynamically evolving Arctic sea ice edge environment.

Amanda is Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University and Director of the Institute at Brown for Environment & Society.

Find out more about Amanda's work and research affiliations:

Institute at Brown for Environment & Society

Read more about the Fellows of the Economics & Science Group

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