Last week, the planet’s climate hit a benchmark. The Mauna Loa Observatory, the world’s premier site for measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, reported that concentrations of the gas had not dropped below 400 parts per million (ppm) in September, a month when carbon dioxide is usually at its lowest because plants in the northern hemisphere are consuming vast quantities of it.
While the 400 ppm mark has been passed in recent years, it has not been sustained, until now. “Even with our best efforts, we are not likely to see another month in our lifetime when CO2 will be below 400 ppm,” said Julie Brigham-Grette, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “This is a daunting landmark.”
Brigham-Grette delivered her remarks at the National Academies of Science the day after science ministers from 25 national governments convened at the White House for an Arctic science ministerial to begin the task of setting priorities for Arctic science. It was the first-ever meeting of science ministers from around the world to focus on increasing cooperation on Arctic science.
In a joint statement released after the meeting, the ministers and Indigenous representatives said, “Recognizing the significance of the environmental, social and economic change in the Arctic region and its impacts on the rest of the planet, we owe this legacy of cooperation to future generations.”
“We needed a process for the looming challenge the Arctic represents,” said Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. government’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee. “The looming crisis in the Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition.”
Temperatures in the Arctic are rising much faster than elsewhere on the planet. A report released last week by a team of international scientists found that Arctic temperatures could rise by as much as 5C (9F) if global temperatures rise by 2C (3.6F), the target identified in the Paris climate agreement. “That level of warming will have far-reaching impacts on Arctic systems and on the rest of the planet,” said lead author Peter Schlosser, director of the Climate Center at Columbia University.
“We need real-time, big-science and cutting-edge modelling to give policymakers the information they need to avoid passing points of no return,” said Brad Ack, senior vice president for oceans at the World Wildlife Fund. “This will take a coordinated, collaborative and coherent approach. [The] ministerial solidifies government leaders’ intentions to build that approach.”
Despite the rapid pace of change in the Arctic and the growing need to understand the impacts of those changes, “the pace of science research infrastructure in the Arctic has not kept pace,” said Fran Ulmer, the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
The White House also used the ministerial to highlight Arctic science initiatives, including the release of a new set of topographic maps made from satellite data to help scientists monitor the state of the Arctic. The maps will give scientists the data they need to detect changes in the warming Arctic, including eroding coastlines, slumping permafrost and shrinking glaciers.
For now, the bulk of the maps cover the Arctic at a resolution of 8 meters (26 feet), with Alaska, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya, mapped a the higher resolution of 2 meters (7 feet). The data set is expected to be further improved over the next 12 months.
Other collaborative projects aim to understand the changing Arctic and its impacts. The European Union will launch an Integrated Arctic Observing System that involves scientists from 14 European countries, as well as Canada, China, Russia and the U.S. It will also launch two projects that aim to better understand how the changing Arctic impacts weather and climate in the Northern hemisphere.
The ministerial meeting recognized the important role Indigenous peoples had in contributing to the understanding of Arctic changes and the needs of the region’s residents. Ellen Inga Turi from the Saami Council called for strengthening Indigenous science capacity and institutions. “If we are going to share our Indigenous knowledge with the outside world, we need to be ensured that the property rights will protect our knowledge and it is not shared in the public domain without the knowledge-owner’s consent.”
The E.U. will host the next Arctic science ministerial in 2018.