The Week Ahead: Failing fast, failing again

ANALYSIS: NOAA releases its annual Arctic Report Card in Washington this week.

By Kevin McGwin - December 10, 2018
An ice-rich permafrost bluff in Utqiagvik with homes atop it is crumbling quickly. (Yereth Rosen)

Presented each year since 2006, the Arctic Report Card offers a thorough status report of the region’s environment, providing detailed information about things like sea ice, snow cover, air temperature, ocean temperature, the Greenland ice sheet, vegetation and other aspects of the ecosystem.

This year’s report card will be released Tuesday at the annual fall conference of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.

By all accounts, the Arctic is in need of remedial help. While early report cards offered glimpses of hope, in more recent versions NOAA has had to come up with different ways of delivering the same message: Warming temperatures are causing widespread changes. While the rate of decline has never been consistent, repeated report cards have underscored that the trend is clearly down.

[In the Arctic, yesterday’s extreme is today’s ‘shifted baseline’]

By 2016, the changes, that year labeled “extensive,” took a turn for the worse. Once only truly pronounced during summer months, the changes in the region had by then become so great that they were now continuing on into winter, robbing the Arctic of its ability to “reset” itself, according to Jeremy Mathis, the head of NOAA’s Arctic research program. In effect, the region is now degrading year-round — something seen, for example, in winter temperatures that have risen above freezing multiple times in recent years.

The cumulative consequence of these changes led NOAA, in last year’s report card, to proclaim that a warmer, wetter, greener, more biologically productive Arctic had become the “new normal.” The Arctic will still be colder than most places on Earth, and ice will still form in the winter, but previously rarely seen events are now less extraordinary. One of the effects of this, scientists lament, is that onlookers become desensitized to the situation, a process they call a “shifting baseline.”

By this point, any changes that have taken place are probably irreversible. Were that only a problem for northerners, it would probably get overlooked by a general public more concerned with their own local issues. NOAA, though, has sought to make the changes relevant beyond the region by warning that the “new Arctic” has a global reach in the form of rising sea levels, more powerful storms in the Northern Hemisphere, and, ironically, deeper cold winter snaps. NOAA has not set a price on the effect of these changes, but multiple studies have calculated the cost to be in the tens of trillions of dollars over the course of several decades.

If the previous report cards are a guide, NOAA will earn an ‘A’ for effort this year. Unfortunately, the region’s grade can be expected to again leave plenty of room for improvement next year.


A crash in time

Svalbard, despite its growing popularity as a tourism destination, remains as dangerous as it has always been. The most glamorous threat is from attacking polar bears, though this is rare. Since 1995, four people have died this way. Two other attacks, in 2015 and earlier this year, almost turned deadly.

For residents, the big risk is the persistent threat of avalanches and mudslides. One in 2015 claimed the lives of two people. Frequent warnings resulting in temporary evacuations, most recently last week, serve as reminders of the danger.

Transport, too, can be hazardous. Two helicopters have crashed in the past decade. The first, in 2008, resulted in the deaths of three of its nine passengers. In the other, last year, all nine people aboard died. Most deadly, though, was the 1996 crash of an airplane in which all 141 passengers perished.

[A helicopter crash could add urgency to Russia’s push for a new base on Svalbard]

This week, first responders and others working for organizations likely to be involved in efforts to respond to a major incident, including Telenor, a telecoms firm, will get the chance to build on the experiences learned in the 1996 tragedy. On the night of December 13, emergency crews in Longyearbyen, the territory’s largest settlement, will be called out into the polar darkness to respond to a simulated plane crash, attend to its victims and then transport them to appropriate treatment and housing centres.

Sysselmannen, the territorial governor and coordinator of the exercise, has not indicated how many victims the drill will involve, but a similar training event in 2014, involving a simulated explosion aboard a cruise ship (depicted above), required the participation of 80 volunteers.

If the experience from that exercise is an indicator, the job of being a casualty on Thursday will not be overly taxing. Mostly, it will involve lying still and pretending to be hurt, perhaps with a little moaning and yelling thrown in for good measure. The worst part, organizers warn in their invitation to potential volunteers, will be having to sit out in the cold until rescuers show up.

Their wait will be worth it for those who may one day need to help real victims, since being able to train in a realistic environment will provide everyone with valuable insight into what an accident would look like, and thus how to react.


Political science

Also this week, Canadian scientists gather in Ottawa, the national capital, for the annual meeting of ArcticNet, a research outfit primarily interested in the environment and modernization of that country’s North. 

The four-day gathering, the largest of its kind in Canada, takes up the most recent findings in Arctic research in areas ranging from dwindling sea ice to community health and education. This year, however, it is finances for research in the coming years that may occupy the minds of those in attendance more than the previous year’s scientific results. 

Created in 2003, ArcticNet has so far received C$114 million ($85 million), including its budget for next year. Few doubt this has been worth it: it is widely respected for its work, which typically includes, and often benefits, communities in the region, and has been credited with reviving Canada’s once-moribund Arctic research.

[Trudeau’s budget looks after science, giving Arctic researchers hope]

Despite this, it continued existence, as well as the existence of other federally funded research centers, was thrown into doubt in early 2017 when the government of Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, proposed a change that would place more emphasis on individual research projects, rather than research networks. 

A later decision made possible for groups like ArcticNet to continue receiving more money, though concern about overall funding levels, and a potential gap between the previous round of funding running out and the next one kicking in, led to some complaints that Ottawa was again under-prioritizing Arctic research, and, worse, that it was doing so at a time when other Arctic and non-Arctic countries were pumping more money into their own, often sovereignty-tinged, activities in the region. Add politics to the list of topics ArcticNet will be concerned with this year.

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].