The Arctic is experiencing some of the fastest rates of ocean acidification with potentially severe implications for the ecosystem and communities dependent on these. To raise awareness on acidifying waters and to bring state-of-the-art knowledge on the issue to a global arena, the Arctic Council organized a side event “All aboard! Tackling polar ocean acidification” at the COP25 in Madrid.

The side event was led by the Icelandic Chairmanship, organized in cooperation with the Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Working Group, and hosted in the Cryosphere Pavilion. It brought together leading international acidification experts for a one and a half hour briefing on the chemical, biological, and socio-economic impacts of acidifying waters in the North – and what can be done to tackle the issue.

Iceland’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, HE. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, opened the side event and highlighted his country’s close ties to its surrounding waters. “Iceland takes any changes in the marine environment very seriously. Fisheries are a main pillar of Iceland’s economy. So, any threats to the Arctic marine ecosystem is of concern to Icelandic society”, he stated in his opening.

Ocean acidification in Arctic waters is widespread and rapid, and while the Arctic Ocean as a whole can be considered as especially vulnerable, the effects of acidifying waters are not uniform across the Arctic. “For the AMAP Arctic Ocean Acidification Assessment 2018 we developed five regional case studies and found that effects and impacts on communities vary across the Arctic. Findings such as the potential reduction in sustainable harvest of the Barents Sea cod stocks by the end of the century are severe – not just for the region but on a global scale”, said Rolf Rødven, executive secretary of AMAP.

AMAP’s assessment was recently backed up by the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. “The AMAP and IPCC reports present complimentary messages on ocean acidification in the high latitudes. Similar as in the rest of the world, ocean acidification is progressing as a result of continued carbon emissions. However, the polar oceans are especially vulnerable to atmospheric emissions because colder seawater naturally absorbs a larger fraction of CO2”, Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the IPCC, stated at the side event.

The ocean has absorbed around one fourth of the carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels globally. Yet, this important role as carbon sink is imperilled. “Ocean acidification is diminishing the ocean’s role in taking up CO2. For every step acidification advances, the ability of the ocean to take up more CO2 becomes smaller and therefor the potential for future global warming increases”, explained Prof Richard Bellerby, from the East China Normal University and Norwegian Institute for Water Research, and Chair of AMAP’s 2018 assessment.

While some marine organisms might benefit from a higher concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide, such as algae, the negative impacts are very likely to outweigh any positive effects, as attendees of the side event learned. “It is complicated because ocean acidification does not happen in isolation. There are multiple stressors affecting life in the Arctic Ocean, such as warming waters, the loss of sea ice and

the inflow of freshwater from melting glaciers. However, generally speaking we see and expect a lot more negative impacts”, said Dr Helen Findlay from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

These effects will particularly be felt by societies that are closely linked to the Arctic marine environment – including many Indigenous coastal communities across the Arctic. “The food-web in the Arctic ocean is very sensitive, so a significant increase in the population of one species or the disappearance of another could have dramatic dripple effects on the entire Arctic marine ecosystem and we Inuit are a part of this ecosystem”, stated Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice President of International Affairs for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada.

In a society that is intricately linked to the marine biodiversity, ocean acidification alters not just the chemistry of the waters, but also livelihoods, cultures, identities and languages. Ko Barrett thus urged the audience to view the effects of ocean acidification in the context of what this means to people in the Arctic – and beyond. “The changes that are documented in the Arctic are sweeping and severe. And while not experienced directly by much of the earth’s population, these changes are important all across the globe. These changes to the remote areas show that even – and especially there – human induced warming and ocean change is evident. This is a clear call to action,” she said in closing her intervention at the side event.

In order to base that action on the best available knowledge, AMAP is continuing its work on ocean acidification and is broadening the perspective to take multiple stressors into account that impact life in the Arctic Ocean.

 

Background information about the Arctic Council’s side event at COP25:

The side event was held on 9 December 13:00-14:30 in the Cryosphere Pavilion at the COP25 in Madrid. A recording of the full event and interviews with the speakers are available on the Arctic Council Vimeo channel.

Agenda

Opening remarks – Icelandic Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, HE. Mr. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson

Expert Panel

  • Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere.
  • Prof. Richard Bellerby, Director of the SKLEC-NIVA Centre for Marine and Coastal Research, East China Normal University, China, and Lead researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Norway: Key findings of the AMAP Arctic Ocean Acidification report
  • Dr. Helen Findlay, Biological oceanographer at Plymouth Marine Laboratory: The impacts of ocean acidification on Arctic species and ecosystems
  • Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice President of International Affairs for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada: The effects of ocean acidification on Inuit communities

Outlook – Dr. Rolf Rødven, Executive Secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP): Summary of key points from presentations and overview of ongoing and upcoming work by AMAP related to ocean acidification

Moderator: Ambassador Stefán Skjaldarson, Arctic Council Chairmanship Iceland

Editorial by Stefán Skjaldarson, Ambassador and Moderator at the Arctic Council’s COP25 side-event.

It was very inspiring to see the high level of interest for the Arctic Council and its work at the COP25 in Madrid. The turnout at the Council’s side event All Aboard! Tackling Polar Ocean Acidification, held in the conference’s Cryosphere Pavilion, was quite impressive and discussions I had with some of the attendees after the event, not least young people, gave me confidence that the work we do matters to many. The success of the event also confirmed to me that the Arctic Council’s science-based approach to meet the environmental challenges we face, as well as the active involvement of the Arctic indigenous peoples, is extremely important to succeed with our work.

The presentations by the scientists and the gloomy perspectives they gave of our future if we do not act decisively now, caught the attention of those present. Their accounts of the different challenges we face in the Arctic, due to melting of the ice and fast-increasing ocean acidification, and their calls for action, left the audience with a true sense of urgency. Moreover, we were presented with concrete examples of how this all affects the livelihood of the indigenous peoples of the North.

The event shows that people, not least young people, are listening and that our actions - or inactions – are watched closely and that we will be judged by our performance. We must therefore keep up the good work by using the best of science combined with indigenous knowledge, to lay the foundation for meaningful decisions and actions. In this context I would like to mention AMAP’s Arctic Ocean Acidification Report as well as their highly valuable policy recommendations, both of which were presented at the event. Also, the perspectives presented by the Inuit Circumpolar Council gave us all a sense of how the livelihoods of Arctic indigenous peoples are affected and how indigenous knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, is relevant when meeting the challenges of the fast changing Arctic environment.

Indeed, other countries, regions and continents will also need to act responsibly if we are to make meaningful progress in addressing the root causes of ocean acidification in the Arctic. We who live in the Arctic should therefore not only use the knowledge we have and the knowledge we will acquire in our work at home. We must also share it and use it to make the world aware of the consequences that their actions and inactions have on the Arctic environment. Moreover, that the changes happening in Arctic also can have dire consequences for the world outside the Arctic. That is why it is so important that the Arctic Council reach out to the wider world by i.e. organizing events of the kind we did in Madrid.

Arctic youth is not just the future but also the present. A slogan that Indigenous youth leaders coined when they got together for the first Arctic Leaders’ Youth Summit in Rovaniemi, Finland, in November 2019. They called for a more active involvement in the issues that affect them – now and in future – and in doing so they joined a global movement of young people that are speaking up for their rights as they see their future imperiled by climate change.

Over the years, the Arctic Council has stepped up its efforts to engage youth. Working Groups such as the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) and the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) have been forerunners in not just looking at how youth is affected by a changing Arctic but in actively involving them in their projects.

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On 20-21 November 2019, the Arctic Council will gather in Hveragerði, Iceland, for the first Senior Arctic Officials’ plenary meeting during the Chairmanship of Iceland (2019-2021). The meeting will focus on work related to People and Communities of the Arctic. Iceland puts an emphasis on cooperation between all entities of the Council – reflecting the Chairmanship’s overarching theme: Together towards a sustainable Arctic.

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