The Humboldt Network in Action – ISSUE NO. 17

Humboldtians and the Changing Arctic

Humboldtians and the Changing Arctic

Betsy Baker (BUKA 1991)

Humboldtians work across diverse disciplines and geographies on cutting edge scientific and policy matters. Combining these varied approaches is precisely what will help expand our understanding of the multiple changes facing the Arctic in 2024 and beyond. Arctic amplification, which tops the list of those changes, refers to the Arctic warming three to four times faster than the rest of the world in recent decades. Arctic or polar amplification is a “robust fact” supported by observed measurements, climate models, and paleoclimate proxy records.

This essay aspires simply to 1) introduce a small number of issues associated with Arctic change and 2) prompt you to consider and share whether and how your work relates to it. Input from beyond the circle of Arctic science is especially welcome, as the field would benefit from viewing these challenges from a fresh perspective.

The cascading changes associated with Arctic warming have serious consequences for the world’s oceans, atmosphere, and ecosystems: from slowing ocean circulation and thawing permafrost to changed hydrology, terrestrial landscapes, and species habitats, to precarious energy and food security and increased access to an ice-diminished Arctic and its resources. The implications of these changes are not only scientific but cultural, socioeconomic, and geopolitical.

Over decades as a professor of international ocean and environmental law, I have been fortunate to work closely with natural and social scientists from around the world in seeking solutions to environmental and cultural challenges arising from Arctic change. On any given day, my inbox here in Alaska includes reports and inquiries ranging from indigenous knowledge and ecosystem expertise, to how changes in lipid content up and down the marine food web affect fish and marine mammal abundance, movement, and vitality, to diplomatic discussions on maritime boundaries in the Arctic, to the reduction of sulfur content in shipping fuel for improved air quality in coastal Arctic villages that abut increasingly busy shipping lanes. We worry about the breakdown in pan-Arctic scientific collaboration with—and the safety of—our Russian colleagues since Russia’s unprovoked further invasion of Ukraine, and the growing data gaps resulting from the inability to work across terrestrial borders and maritime boundaries in the Arctic. These are just a few of the many interconnected issues my colleagues and I work on.

In the dozen years that my own work has focused on the Arctic, the biggest and most promising change in the broader research community relates to Indigenous Knowledge. What began as a gradual shift from outright skepticism in the Western scientific community a decade ago is now widespread acknowledgment that Indigenous Knowledge provides essential insights and expertise for addressing Arctic issues. Indigenous colleagues and organizations have led the way with persistent advocacy and relationship building, consistently participating in scientific meetings and using platforms such as the Arctic Council, where they have formal participation rights, to demonstrate how critical their input is to informed Arctic policy. Today, most pan-Arctic research organizations and many governmental bodies have official policies to promote co-produced research that draws on Indigenous and other knowledge. A concrete and legally binding example from international law is the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement. Groundbreaking in many other ways, it also includes Indigenous Knowledge holders in the body charged with developing the scientific program for the parties to the agreement.

To assist in preparing this essay, American Friends of AvH helped me identify fellow US-based Humboldtians who work on Arctic issues, including Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette, a distinguished arctic marine and terrestrial paleoclimatologist—and skilled climate communicator—who chaired the US National Academies Polar Research Board for many years. Piper Foster Wilder, a sister German Chancellor Fellowship alumna, is founder and CEO of 60Hertz, whose software streamlines the maintenance of energy assets, especially for the microgrids that are essential in a state like Alaska that has no centralized power grid, let alone roads to connect most of our villages. Several other Humboldtians working on issues relevant to, even if not directly based in the Arctic, are associated with one of the world’s premier polar research institutes known as AWI: the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung in Potsdam, Germany. AWI’s now aging research icebreaker, the R/V Polarstern was the backbone of MOSAiC, a historic multi-year research program in the Arctic Ocean that for the first time gathered ship-borne observations year-round, even in the relentlessly dark polar winter.  The work of Humboldtian Dr. Alexandra Jahn, who directs the Polar and Paleoclimate modeling group at the University of Colorado, and participates in the multinational ship based Synoptic Arctic Survey, returns us to the starting point of this essay: both modeling and paleoclimatology confirm the existence of Arctic amplification.

If this short excursion through a sampling of challenges arising from Arctic change taps into your interests, or omits you or other Humboldtians in the field, please contact me to consider how we might amplify our knowledge in service of addressing those challenges.