Polar Notes

Dec 2016

New Arctic Council report aims to better understand changes in the Arctic

Last month, the Arctic Council published the final report of the Arctic Resilience Assessment, a project launched by the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2013-2015). The report, which was led by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, provides a new assessment of how environmental and social changes are affecting resilience in the Arctic. It seeks to help those responsible for managing natural resources and public policy to identify potential thresholds of change (wherein the status quo can no longer hold) and prepare effectively for an uncertain future.  

The five-year study found that the environmental, ecological and social changes being witnessed in the Arctic are “happening faster than ever, and accelerating”. The changes are driven primarily by human activity, including resource demand, transportation needs, migration, geopolitical changes and globalisation. The most pervasive and powerful driver of all, though, is climate change.  

To better understand the complexities of Arctic change, the report identifies 19 potential so-called “Arctic regime shifts”. Such shifts occur when there are major changes to how societies interact with their surrounding environments, with substantial impacts on the benefits that people receive from nature. These shifts can affect everything from the economy, to the viability of a community, to human well-being. However, they tend to be difficult to anticipate and costly to reverse. Examples include the shift from a permanently ice-covered Arctic Ocean to one which is summer ice-free; the melting of the Greenlandic ice sheet; fisheries collapse; and changes to how people move across the landscape.  

The report also presents a diverse set of case studies to better understand what factors may enable resilient outcomes in the Arctic. These show examples of resilience, wherein socio-ecological systems have retained identity, function and structure; examples of loss of resilience, wherein there has been loss of livelihoods, identity, function and structure; and examples of transformation, wherein people have responded to changes by adapting their identities, functions and structures.  

Using these case studies, the authors identify several practices and strategies to help build resilience in the Arctic. These include increased monitoring of the changes taking place in the Arctic, as well as improving ways of tracking and learning from regime shifts, and developing ‘decision theatres’ (large-scale data visualisations that enable uses to explore issues and responses collaboratively). The authors also highlight the increasingly important role being played by the Arctic Council as it helps “devise novel ways of fostering pan-Arctic collaboration” between local and international actors.  

The Arctic Resilience Report is just the latest of a series of important assessments carried out by the Arctic Council over its twenty-year history. Other reports include the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2004), the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (2009) and the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (2013). Such work is demonstrative of the valuable role the Arctic Council is playing in gathering and assessing information about how the Arctic is changing, how that change is shaped by diverse drivers (many of which come from beyond the region), and how the implications of change in the Arctic have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world. It also shows why international cooperation in the Arctic continues to be so important, as these types of assessments can only be carried out when there is consensus among the eight Arctic States that such a project is needed. In the coming years, the Arctic States and the rest of the international community will no doubt hope to find similar common ground from which to address other issues of shared concern in the region.

Useful Links

For more information about the Arctic Resilience Report: http://arctic-council.org/arr/

To read the Arctic Resilience Final Report: https://www.sei-international.org/publications?pid=3047

For more information about the Arctic Council: http://arctic-council.org  

For more information about the Stockholm Environment Institute: https://www.sei-international.org/  

For more information about the Stockholm Resilience Centre: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/