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Introducing the New Arctic Council Observers

From Swiss glacier expertise to weather forecasting to assessing northerly fish stocks, the Arctic Council’s newcomers share how they plan to help create a better understanding of circumpolar issues.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
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The Arctic Council's senior officials' meeting in Juneau, Alaska, March 2017.Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström

The Arctic Council welcomed seven new observers into its fold during last week’s ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Switzerland is the only new country to be admitted, joining 12 other non-Arctic countries with observer status. Observers don’t have any decision-making powers, but they are able to attend the council’s meetings and contribute to working groups.

The Swiss, who have vied for several years to join the Arctic Council, contend their country’s mountains and glaciers give their scientists plenty of experience working in terrain similar to the Arctic. The country also has a track record of working with Arctic nations and of taking a leading role in addressing environmental issues such as climate change, ozone depletion and persistent organic pollutants.

The World Meteorological Organization has also become an Arctic Council observer. Finland, which took on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, has made meteorological research one of its priorities during its two-year leadership term.

This week, the World Meteorological Organization launched its Year of Polar Prediction. The project, with the help of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute and other partners, will aim to improve weather and sea ice forecasts.

It’s a timely initiative, given how the Arctic has dramatically warmed in recent years, contributing to precipitous declines in sea ice. And these changes may be altering the ocean’s circulation and the jet stream, impacting the weather in more southerly climes.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is another new observer. The organization is already involved with an Arctic Council working group that is conducting an ecosystem assessment of the central Arctic Ocean. The region’s fish stocks are presently not well understood, and with sea ice dwindling, concerns have been raised that fish populations could be quickly wiped out. Arctic nations are currently negotiating a ban on commercial fishing until the area’s fish stocks are fully assessed.

Nils Hammer, the council’s president, said in an email that observer status would allow the organization “to contribute with experience from our scientific advisory work on fish stocks (in the Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea, as well as west of Greenland), on alien species in relation to ecosystem vulnerability to shipping, and overall in relation to vulnerable marine areas, as well as impacts of climate change.”

Oceana, an ocean conservation group, was also admitted as an observer. The organization is currently working with a regional Inuit organization in Alaska to map sensitive marine areas by combining traditional and scientific knowledge. “At the Arctic Council, we hope to further this type of scientific collaboration and the identification and protection of important ecological areas,” Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, said in an email.

The group is also involved with a project to assess the risks of Arctic shipping and other industrial activities. “As sea ice melts and this remote expanse becomes more accessible, it is imperative to have sustainable management and science-based choices about whether and under what conditions to allow industrial activities,” said LeVine.

The other new observers are the Oslo-Paris Commission, which aims to protect the marine environment in the northeast Atlantic; the West Nordic Council, which represents the parliaments of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands; and the National Geographic Society.

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