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Polar politics: changing Arctic climate

  • Written by  Duncan Depledge
  • Published in Opinions
Polar politics: changing Arctic climate Mel Thompson
16 Oct
On the Southern edge of the remote Kongsfjorden (King’s Fjord) on the west side of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, an international research community representing ten different nations spent the long summer days studying the Arctic’s changing climate and environment

Situated at 78° 55’N, 11° 56’E, Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world. During the Summer Recess, eight members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Polar Regions, chaired by James Gray MP since 2015, spent three days there to see for themselves some of the dramatic changes already unfolding in the Arctic, and the important scientific work being undertaken there.

The eight members who travelled to Ny-Ålesund (sponsored by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Mamont Foundation) were a diverse group comprising MPs and Peers from the four largest parties in Parliament (Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish National Party, and the Liberal Democrats). The group as a whole shared a keen interest in learning more about why Britain is investing in Arctic research (more than £30million over the past decade), what climatic changes are being observed in the Arctic, the potential economic implications, and, for the MPs in particular, how the lives of their constituents might be impacted by those changes.

Svalbard itself is of immense value to the scientific community. With the Gulf Stream flowing past its western shores, the local environment is far warmer than anywhere else so far north, making it easier for scientists to be there. It also sits on a major gateway to the Arctic for many oceanic and atmospheric pollutants arriving from industrial sites further south, particularly in Europe, allowing scientists to investigate not just the effects of changes in the Arctic, but also the causes.

The group was hosted in Ny-Ålesund by British scientists working out of the Natural Environment Research Council’s ‘UK Arctic Research Station’. The station which was established in 1992, provides UK researchers and others with dedicated support to conduct their fieldwork.

During the group’s stay, members heard about the innovative work of Dr Edward King from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who is using ground-penetrating radar to map changes in glaciers (technology that he has also deployed in Antarctica). A field visit to one of the glacier’s that Dr King was working on brought home to the group just how much Ny-Ålesund itself had changed over recent decades, where the average winter temperature is now 10°C warmer than the long-term average, and sea-ice has virtually disappeared from the fjord.

Nearby, Dr Kevin Newsham was investigating how warming soil temperatures were facilitating the growth of fungi that over the long-term have the potential to unleash a ‘carbon bomb’ in the Arctic by unlocking carbon previously held fast by permafrost.

The group also visited the Geodetic Observatory at Brandalspynten, just outside the main Ny-Ålesund settlement, where leading-edge technology is being used to precisely map changes in the motion of the Earth. It forms part of a global network of support for crucial satellite-based infrastructure that is used for accurate monitoring of climate, sea level, floods, landslides, earthquakes, and melting ice, as well as global positioning systems. Technological spin-offs from the development of the Global Geodetic Observatory System have also proven commercially valuable, for instance, through improvements to the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Throughout its stay, the group saw first-hand the complete absence of sea-ice in Kongsfjorden, where only a few decades ago, scientists travelled around on skidoos. The group also saw several glaciers that were retreating by many meters every year, and heard about significant changes to the local flora and fauna, including the ever-increasing numbers of Atlantic cod and mackerel, more commonly found in warmers waters further south.

The APPG for the Polar Regions exists to promote awareness and understanding in Parliament of polar issues, and those who took part are now likely to become ambassadors for the Arctic and Arctic science, both in Parliament and within their own constituencies. If there was one clear takeaway shared by all of the parliamentarians who were with us, it is that much more work still needs to be done to understand how the climate is changing, how those changes interact with different feedback mechanisms that threaten to exacerbate the rate of change, and whether enough is being done back in the UK to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, this was at least an opportunity for eight parliamentarians to experience the changing Arctic, and to better understand why the UK needs to keep investing in Arctic science. It is now up to them to communicate their impressions to both Parliament and their constituents.

Duncan Depledge is the Director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions Secretariat in Westminster and a special adviser to the House of Commons Defence Committee. The Chairman of the APPG for the Polar Regions is James Gray MP. The other members who took part in the trip were: John Mann MP, Mark Menzies MP, Madeleine Moon MP, Brendan O’Hara MP, Lord Haworth, Baroness Neville-Jones, and Baroness Smith of Newnham

This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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