In 2016, then-President Barak Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada jointly charted a new course for collaborative leadership in the Arctic. With the motivation provided by our shared borders, close economic ties and the common challenges faced by the Indigenous peoples in both countries whose culture and way of life has flourished in this remote part of the world for thousands of years, Canada and the United States have played a pivotal role in promoting solutions to shared challenges in the Arctic. Now is the time for the two nations to reaffirm their commitment to work together to meet the growing climate-linked challenges in their far North, from intensifying wildfires and thawing permafrost, to plant and animal impacts imperiling Indigenous subsistence and cultures, to a changing Arctic Ocean and all that this entails for the region and the globe.
Fortunately, when President Biden visits Trudeau for two days next week, there should be time for them to discuss not only the currently compelling geopolitical challenges around relations with Russia and China but also what more the United States and Canada can do together to address the slower growing but increasingly critical problems being imposed by climate change on the North American Arctic. A good initial focus for this discussion would be the Central Artic Ocean (CAO), given its high relevance to the interests of both countries and the immense role it plays in impacts of climate change both regionally and globally.
The Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) is more than 1 million square miles of international waters surrounding the North Pole. Its border is formed by the 200 nautical-mile line drawn from the shores of the five Arctic coastal states: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States. For nearly all of the tenure of human beings on this planet, the CAO has been covered with a multi-meter layer of floating sea ice. That has made it the least-studied ocean area on Earth but also one of the most consequential in its influence on the global climate. That influence comes in large part from the sea ice’s high reflectivity, which sends most incoming sunlight back to space, cooling the region and the planet below what temperature would be if the area covered by ice were open water or land instead (which is far less reflective than ice).
The enhancement, by the ice, of the temperature difference between the CAO and the equator also plays a major role in atmospheric circulation and ocean currents in the Northern Hemisphere, further influencing climate in the regions where most of the world’s people live.
The human-caused changes in global climate have hit the Arctic particularly hard, warming it three to four times faster than the global average. Summer sea ice melting has accelerated, refreezing takes place later each year, and sea ice thickness is greatly diminished. This warming has accelerated a cascade of changes and stressors for ocean life in the Arctic, including crashes in fish, marine mammal and seabird populations in some northern seas, as well as in-migration of new species into the Arctic. Indigenous and other coastal communities that have relied on the productivity of the Arctic Ocean are faced with accelerating challenges to food security, increased dangers while pursuing cultural practice, and catastrophic coastal erosion exacerbated by the retreat of the sea ice. As the existing fabric of life in the Arctic frays, there is still inadequate scientific understanding of how the ecosystem will evolve in an increasingly warm and ice-free sea.
Despite this lack of scientific understanding of all that is happening and likely to happen in the future in the CAO, there is much interest by global actors in how the most visible changes can be exploited economically. China is extolling a shipping route across the CAO as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling plan to rework global trading patterns. The five nations bordering the CAO are laying claim to the seabed all the way to the North Pole in the hopes of finding mineral wealth in the CAO sea bed in the future. But the risks to the CAO from these schemes have neither been studied adequately nor accounted for in national planning: air pollution (including black carbon emissions that amplify melting of sea ice), noise and water pollution from ships and ice breakers, as well as the risk of catastrophic fuel and oil spills in case of accidents. The effects on whales, seals, fish, seabirds, plankton and other components of the Arctic food web are unknown and, at present, unknowable. But even relatively small-scale industrial operations much closer to shore in the Arctic have resulted in habitat loss, avoidance behavior by species and changes to migration patterns.
In response to one piece of these challenges, the United States and Canada led a successful effort to craft an international agreement to prevent the start of commercial fishing in the CAO while scientific studies are undertaken to learn about life in this ocean. It was a unique, but simple solution: Do the science first, then think about fishing later when the information exists to do it right. The resulting International Arctic Fisheries Agreement, negotiated during the Obama administration and signed by the Trump administration, gave the world hope that some of the mistakes made in other ocean areas might be avoided in the Arctic. Biden should take the opportunity of his visit to Canada to keep this hope alive by working with Trudeau to describe a new, more comprehensive management vision for the Central Arctic Ocean.
As we noted above, the challenges in the CAO are only a part of the array of Arctic issues that could be addressed more successfully by continued joint effort between our two countries. But we are hopeful that next week’s Ottawa meeting will at least use a focus on the CAO to make a start on what will become a North American Arctic Agenda for the 21st century.
Fran Ulmer is senior fellow in the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, as well as former lieutenant governor of Alaska.
John Holdren is research professor at the Kennedy School, co-chair of the Arctic Initiativ, and President Obama’s science adviser from 2009 until 2017.
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