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The Future of Arctic Science

By Edward Struzik

When seabird biologist David Irons recently discovered the carcasses of some 8,000 murres on the shores of Prince William Sound in Alaska, the initial response was one of bewilderment. Murre die-offs have occurred in the past, but no one had seen anything quite as massive as this one.

In various media reports, scientists wondered aloud whether this was related to the latest El Niño event, climate change that is warming Alaskan and other Arctic waters, or a series of storms that had viciously battered the region in December. The consensus was that the birds starved to death, likely because their prey—capelin, herring, and juvenile pollock—had either scattered, gone to deeper depths, or disappeared from the region. If storms played a role, they likely put the birds out of their misery.

No one is suggesting that this die-off will have an impact on the population of murres. In Alaska, there are as many as 2.8 million breeders in 230 colonies. The circumpolar population could be as a high as 21 million.

There is, however, a backstory to this event that is much more important to scientists, the Inuit, and policymakers interested in future of the Arctic. Murres are not the only Arctic birds getting battered by changes brought on by warmer air temperatures and waters, stormier conditions, ocean acidification, and pollution drifting northward. 

One only needs to look at the reports put out by Canadian biologist Mark Mallory and his modest lab at Acadia University after his team returns from various projects in the Arctic and north Atlantic every year:

  • Glaucous gull numbers appear to be declining in Canada, Iceland and Norway.
  • Mercury is high in the feathers of Arctic seabirds, such as ivory gulls in the Canadian territory of Nunavut.
  • 14 percent of the dovekies migrating from Greenland to Newfoundland contained plastic garbage in their stomachs. 
  • Arctic diving birds that had to migrate farther to find food had higher indices of stress in their blood during incubation, according to physiological measures.
  • On Coats Island in northern Hudson Bay, polar bears faced with an early retreat of sea ice from which they hunt ringed seals have retreated to the island to eat murre eggs, according to Tony Gaston, Mallory’s more senior colleague. At the same time, warmer spring weather resulted in an early hatch of mosquitoes. There are so many mosquitoes feasting on nesting murres in some of those early spring years that it isn’t uncommon for them to die from blood loss.
  •  In years when the sea-ice season is short, polar bears prey on seabird colonies more often and cause widespread nesting failures at levels that are not sustainable for some species.

The news isn’t all bad. Ongoing monitoring of seabird eggs in the Prince Leopold Island and Coats Island colonies suggests that many contaminants of previous concern, such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a form of flame retardant, are in decline. Like some other countries, Canada banned the importation of all flame retardants in 2010.

But the fact remains that all across the Arctic, resident birds on both land and water are experiencing increasing stresses that affect their foraging patterns and reproductive success rates. The gyrfalcon, the peregrine falcon, the willow and rock ptarmigan, the long-tailed jaeger or skua, and Ross’s and ivory gulls are in decline, as are some other birds that fly north to nest in the Arctic. In many cases, the birds’ prey—lemmings, snowshoe hare, and cod in the southern reaches of the Arctic Ocean—are experiencing population declines and shifts in their reproductive cycles. 

Scientists are working hard to understand why these cycles are changing, but many suspect that climate change is largely responsible. Capelin are overtaking cod in many parts of the Arctic. With springtime in the Arctic advancing by two or three weeks, snowshoe hares may not be losing their white coats fast enough to make them less vulnerable to predation come spring. Higher temperatures may also be having an impact on vegetation that is critical for some birds. Meanwhile, warmer and shorter winters are resulting in snowfall and icing events that may not be conducive to lemming, vole, and other rodent reproduction.

The take home message here is that Arctic nations need to react faster and more diligently to the changes that are taking place. Sitting back and watching, or not watching, this unfold, as they did in the 1990s and 2000s when circumpolar caribou populations crashed, is not the answer.

Many of the answers lie in a report that was published nearly two years ago by the Polar Research Board of the United States National Academy of Science. It identified the key scientific questions that are emerging in different realms of Arctic science and provides guidance on future research questions in the Arctic over the next 10 to 20 years. Suffice to say, it will take more money and more cooperation between Arctic nations to follow through on that advice.

There is a concern among some scientists who were involved in the writing of that report that a sense of urgency to act has dissipated now that most oil companies in North America have abandoned exploration and drilling plans in the Arctic due to the collapse of oil prices. If that’s the case, it would be a serious mistake. While the price of oil, which has been hovering around the $30 to $35 mark, may be with us for a while, the International Energy Agency is predicting that it will rebound. Oil may not return to levels where it makes Arctic oil exploration profitable for many years, but that could change quickly if conflict in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia escalates.

In the meantime, important data that might come from scientific research will be lost if scientists such as Mallory continue to operate on shoestring budgets.

The opportunity to act fast could arise during a meeting in March when President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discuss issues of mutual interest. Whether that will happen is far from clear.

There is, however, some interest on both sides in coming up with some joint Arctic actions. This could include conservation measures (such as Canada announcing its support for a binding international agreement on fishing in the central Arctic Ocean), as well as consensus in researching and monitoring cooperation.

All of these discussions are at an early stage now, and it’s unclear what they will lead to, but they are a start of processes that could and should lead to positive developments.

Scott Highleyman, international director for the PEW Charitable Trusts’ Arctic Ocean program, is involved in marine campaigns in Canada, Greenland, and international waters promoting science and community-based conservation and the welfare of indigenous residents who depend on this ecosystem. Highleyman is not alone in suggesting that the time has come to act now on mapping a future for the Arctic.

"A downturn in commodities prices like oil is the perfect time for government to increase commitment for basic science to help understand how the Arctic ecosystem works and how it is changing,” said Highleyman in a statement to World Policy Journal. “Waiting for the next Arctic boom to learn more means we will never learn how to get sustainable development right." 

If scientists, aboriginal people, and policymakers are not given the resources necessary to answer the many emerging questions arising in the Arctic, we will continue to be surprised and left helpless in dealing with catastrophic events that are rapidly unfolding in the region. 

*****

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Edward Struzik is an author, journalist, and regular contributor to Yale Environment 360 and a fellow at Institute for Energy and Environment Policy at Queen's University in Canada. He was recently appointed to the Board of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.  

[Photos courtesy of Edward Struzik]

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