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Executive Summary for December 2nd

We review the latest Arctic news, including discussions over commercial fishing in the Arctic high seas and the ongoing effects of the permafrost thaw.

Published on Dec. 2, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

No Agreement Reached on Arctic High Seas Fishing Ban

A third round of talks aimed at preventing unregulated commercial fishing on the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean have failed to produce an agreement.

The news came after three days of discussions in the Faroe Islands among delegates from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S., and the fishing nations of China, Iceland, Japan, South Korea and the E.U.

Several key roadblocks must be resolved before the parties can reach an agreement, including how and when exploratory fishing might take place, when commercial fishing might begin in the future, how the 10 nations would make decisions and whether the agreement will be legally binding.

“Given the key issues still under debate, it’s impossible to know if this will be an agreement to prevent the start of unregulated fishing in this newly emerging Arctic sea or whether it will actually promote fishing before we have adequate science,” said Scott Highleyman, the international Arctic director of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and a member of the U.S. delegation.

The delegations have said they will continue negotiations. The next meeting may take place in Iceland in early 2017.

Release of Soil Carbon Could Blow Climate Targets

As much as 55 billion tons of carbon could be released from the soils by 2050, according to a new study, published in Nature this week.

One of the study’s authors compared it to having an extra U.S. on the planet, the Washington Post reported. The amount is equivalent to 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities, reported the Alaska Dispatch News.

Arctic soils contain vast amounts of carbon due to the accumulation of dead plant material within them. As these thick frozen soils warm, the carbon within them is released into the atmosphere, where they contribute to the rise in global temperatures.

While some of this carbon may be taken up by plants, scientists do not expect the increased vegetation growth to offset soil carbon losses. Another study, published this week in the journal Ecosystems, found that Arctic plants are not using the carbon flowing out of the tundra, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

Climate researchers are concerned about soil carbon because the magnitude and timing of their contribution to global warming are poorly understood. Many caution that soil emissions could blow the carbon budget being used by countries to calculate their emissions reductions to keep warming below the 2C (3.6F) target.

A third study published this week found that thawing permafrost in the Yukon and Mackenzie river basins was changing the chemistry of those rivers, CBC News reported.

Three decades of monitoring has revealed that minerals long locked into the permafrost are now leaching into the rivers. That change in chemical composition has reduced the length of time the Yukon River stays frozen, which increases riverbank erosion, and could have consequences on the Arctic Ocean and the fish and wildlife habitats, reported ClimateWire.

Caribou Herd Numbers Sink

A large Alaska caribou herd has lost 50 percent of its size in the past three years, according to surveys completed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Central Arctic Herd peaked at 70,000 animals in 2010, but has about 22,000 caribou this year, the Associated Press reported. The death rate among adult female caribou, which are more likely to be collared than adult males, has been higher this year than others.

Researchers have ruled out hunting and predation as causes for the decline, but continue to search for answers. A state wildlife biologist told the Associated Press that the department will look closely at weather data to see if it may have affected the animals’ access to the vegetation that makes up their diet, including mushrooms, sedges, lichen and small shrubs.

The herd, which ranges from the Arctic coast to the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay and to the south side of the Brooks Range, covers 114,000 sq km (44,400 square miles). Some of the animals may have joined other herds, biologists told the Associated Press.

The low numbers mean that the state may recommend hunting restrictions for 2017, reported Alaska Public Media.

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