Arctic Science Moves to Center Stage

Nothing that happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. As a consequence of global warming, this is not a play on words but a truism. Climate change can no longer be denied; it must be addressed. Global warming is opening up an entire region, once silent and perpetually frozen, to commerce, transport, mining, and all the other benefits and ills of modern life. In August, the Crystal Serenity, a giant cruise ship used to ply warm seas, sailed across the top of the world, just one example of a radical transformation bringing the Arctic to the center of the global future.

The Arctic can no longer play second fiddle to other parts of the globe. It’s one of the world’s last major frontiers, and its value to every nation cannot be overstated. That includes the United States, a major Arctic nation with vital interests at stake.

Last year, US President Barack Obama delivered remarks at the historic GLACIER summit of eighteen nations in Anchorage, Alaska, signaling the region’s critical importance to the United States and to all other nations that took part. Now recognizing that the first step toward action is understanding, the White House will convene the first Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28. It will emphasize the importance of science in creating a common knowledge base of changes that are radically transforming the Arctic,  deepen international relationships, and underscore the vital importance of science diplomacy to meeting the Arctic’s unavoidable challenges.

In recent years, concerns about the Arctic have centered on Russia. Its aggressive actions in its near-abroad, notably in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, have created apprehensions in the United States and other Arctic nations about its intentions in the Far North. Russia has expanded its military presence along its vast Arctic borders (though still not to Cold War levels); claimed preeminence in oil and gas, mining, and fisheries in large areas of the Arctic as its territorial right; and planned to exploit shipping through the Northern Sea Route, made more accessible by the diminishing polar ice cap.

Yet Russia is also beginning to join other Arctic nations in recognizing that climate change will degrade its environment, that the challenge can only be met in common, and that it has to cooperate as well as compete with other nations with Arctic interests. Thus it is taking part in the White House ministerial with other nations’ science ministers. And despite Russia’s behavior elsewhere, we believe it is in the US interest to have Moscow engaged.

The Arctic Science Ministerial is bringing together science ministers and other senior officials from all member states of the Arctic Council: the United States (the current chair), Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and many non-Arctic nations such as Japan and South Korea. Together, they will build upon current successful collaboration on Arctic science, ocean and environmental monitoring, climate change, energy, telecommunications, data sharing, and research.

The gathering will advance understanding of Arctic science challenges, strengthen Arctic observation and data sharing, build regional resilience to changing conditions, and promote education for Alaska Natives and indigenous communities in the other Arctic nations.

The US Arctic Executive Steering Committee, under the auspices of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is organizing and leading this science ministerial, with specific science and research goals. This is a true “whole of government” effort, involving every agency actively involved in the US Arctic strategy, including the US Navy and Coast Guard, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

The meeting can be the model for a new type of global engagement, based on three key principles:

1.     Advancing scientific understanding is strategically important and can have no boundaries

2.     Science diplomacy can support key US diplomatic and security objectives by building trust and deepening cooperation

3.     Cooperation in key regions needs to involve partners outside the region: many non-Arctic nations, such as Japan and even China, can make important contributions to Arctic science

As it demonstrates these key principles and gains international commitment to them, the White House Arctic Science Ministerial can become a pivotal point in the history of humankind’s necessary efforts to deal with climate change, the single greatest challenge of our time.

The authors are members of an advisory board reporting to the US Department of State. The views expressed are their own, and are not necessarily those of the US Department of State or the US government.

Image: An undated NASA illustration shows Arctic sea ice at a record low wintertime maximum extent for the second straight year, according to scientists at the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA. At 5.607 million square miles, the Arctic sea ice is the lowest maximum extent in the satellite record, and 431,000 square miles below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum extent, according to NASA. (Reuters/NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio/C. Starr)