The Arctic in Washington, DC

Guest Post by Heleen van Soest

To get an idea of climate, energy and biodiversity policies in the US, Heleen van Soest visited Washington DC, in January and February 2014. She attended the 3 days conference Building Climate Solutions, and had interviews at a number of institutions and think tanks. In a couple of guest posts, she shares her thoughts.

Post 6: Arctic temperatures in Washington, DC

Don’t forget to follow Bernice Notenboom’s Arctic March, may be the last ice expedition: http://arcticmarch.com On twitter: @arcticmarch

As it was pretty cold during the conference Building Climate Solutions, it seemed appropriate to  join two symposia about the Arctic. The first discussed the current state of affairs, changes, and challenges from different perspectives. For example, what will happen to transportation? An obvious answer is more shipping due to melting sea ice, but there will also be difficulties with ice roads on land. As to ecosystems: how will the ocean ecosystems be affected by and adapt to the changing conditions? That will be interesting, as changes somewhere in the system will have cascading effects throughout the food web, but will also affect the ocean’s ability to absorb our CO2. The second symposium was promisingly called ‘An Arctic Preservation Roadmap’, but really was more about metrics (e.g. the 100-year Global Warming Potential, GWP). Still interesting, though: how to account for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, including ocean acidification and local soot pollution? Those turn out to be pretty important in the Arctic. The session further discussed regional sulphate cooling zones and the role of the polar vortex in the current cold wave here in the U.S. (see this NOAA page). A questionnaire about the Arctic was handed out among the workshop participants; the results were discussed in a follow-up session. Not surprisingly, a unanimous yes was given to the statement “We should act decisively within the next decade to slow Arctic warming”. The discussion touched on many issues, among which geoengineering. That could be a separate blog, I guess, so I won’t elaborate on it here. Let’s just say I’m not a big fan. Luckily, someone brought in the point of biodiversity loss in the Arctic. Ocean acidification is an important factor here. As the Arctic waters are cold, they can take up a lot of CO2 (Henry’s law). However, as the CO2 dissolves, it makes the water more acidic (lower pH), affecting many organisms living in the water. So can we preserve these ecosystems, as the symposium name suggested? Difficult to answer, because what does preservation mean? These ecosystems are changing already; management or protection may be better terms. But even protection is tricky. According to William Winner, we risk losing the Arctic completely, turning it into the northern edge of the temperate zone. That’s a rather different scenario than the ‘blue Arctic’, referring to the rapid loss of sea ice. Black carbon, or soot, could speed up melt of snow and ice by lowering their albedo (reflectivity) and absorbing the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it. Soot comes from various sources, such as wildfires and shipping. Those sources were often mentioned in the discussion, but I missed another important source: gas flaring. As the opening up of the Arctic brings resource exploration opportunities alongside new shipping routes, such human sources might increase in future and inject black carbon directly in the Arctic environment. For ships, a mitigation option would be to switch to LNG (liquefied natural gas) as fuel. But, someone noted, the introduction of mitigation measures for ships is moving very, very slowly. As a nice addition to these workshops, the National Museum of Natural History (one of many Smithsonian museums on the Mall) had some displays about the Arctic. They say pictures say more than words, so here you are:

Polar bear at the National Museum of Natural History

Polar bear at the National Museum of Natural History

Heleen van Soest is an independent researcher at HvS Earth System Research. On Twitter: @Hel1vs

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