Protecting the Arctic

Written evidence submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council


1. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is one of the UK’s seven Research Councils. It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment and trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. Details of NERC’s research centres, marine delivery partners and research programmes are available at .

2. This response is based on input from NERC Swindon Office, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML).

NERC support for research relevant to protecting the Arctic

3. NERC supports national capability for long term monitoring and modelling, time-limited coordinated strategic research programmes and smaller responsive curiosity driven research projects of relevance to protecting the Arctic. A key strategic investment is the £15 million five-year (2011- 2015) NERC Arctic Research Programme [1] . The overarching aim of this programme is: " To improve our capability to predict changes in the Arctic, particularly over timescales of months to decades, including regional impacts and the potential for feedbacks on the global Earth System.

4. The £15m Arctic Programme will focus on four linked scientific objectiv es:

· Understanding and attributing the current rapid changes in the Arctic

· Quantifying processes leading to Arctic methane and carbon dioxide release

· Reducing uncertainty in Arctic climate and associated regional biogeochemistry (C and N cycling) predictions

· Assessing the likely risks of sub-marine hazards (tsunami) associated with rapid Arctic climate change

5. Deliverables from th e £15m Arctic programme will include:

· New or improved models for atmospheric/ocean sea-ice process studies

· Improved characterisation of Arctic processes

· Improved capabilities for predicting changes in the Arctic

· Interpretation of current Arctic climate change and its implications for policymakers and Arctic communities

6. In addition, NERC has established an Arctic Office to support UK Arctic researchers in establishing links to international collaborators and in accessing polar infrastructure and logistical support, including:

· polar research ships [2] and aircraft [3] operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

· the UK NERC Arctic Station at Ny-Alesund at Svalbard, and

· Arctic stations and facilities in Arctiv Rim nations [4]

7. The RRS James Clark Ross in the Arctic for about 60-70 days per annum and over the next two years a NERC-BAS Twin Otter [5] and the UK Met Office Facilities for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement [6] aircraft will carry out atmospheric research in the Arctic. Through international barter arrangements will Norway, NERC will also have access to a new Norwegian ice vessel that is currently being built.

Responses to questions

Q1. How the effects of global warming might open up the region to commercial opportunities, and how the UK in taking advantage of these might ensure that the region’s environment is protected;

8. The reduction in sea ice in the summer, and warming conditions, are likely to provide opportunities for the oil and gas industry, shipping and, to a lesser extent, for fishing in the Arctic. Increased development in the north itself will provide additional commercial opportunities.

9. Decreasing levels of summer sea ice are already enabling limited commercial shipping activity to take place in Arctic waters, dramatically shortening the sea passage from Europe to the Pacific Ocean and markets such as China and Japan. It is feasible that full navigation for non-ice strengthened ships will be possible for several months each summer by the middle part of this century though year on year variability in sea-ice distribution will influence the open access period and there will always be some degree of risk from individual pieces of ice. For ships with some form of ice protection the available sailing season will be greatly extended, though much depends upon the willingness of Arctic nations to supply ice-breaker and search and rescue cover ‘out of season’.

10. Ice-free summers will lead to major changes in Arctic ecosystems over time, with new species taking advantage of the high summer light levels in the upper layers of the oceans. Plankton production has increased in recent years due to a longer growing season with more open water and this would potentially support larger fisheries if nutrient levels are sufficient. However, the presence of freshwater in surface layers over much of the Arctic Ocean will more likely limit nutrient upwelling from depth and riverine nutrient inputs will only support nutrient hotspots nearshore to river mouths so the Arctic Ocean will likely overall remain nutrient-poor, limiting future fisheries.

11. Where fishery increase does occur it will, in some instances, be through increased abundance of existing species; in other cases it will be mobile species migrating northward from neighbouring seas. Arctic States will doubtless seek to exploit any new stocks and are unlikely to permit foreign vessels including UK and EU vessels, from fishing within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones, unless large licensing fees are paid.

12. Arctic tourism by ship is likely to grow in the coming years. As an island nation used to dealing with difficult maritime conditions, the UK might take advantage by leading the way in servicing aspects of these commercial opportunities. For example, The UK has a number of leading oil spill response companies (e.g. Oil Spill Response Ltd), search and rescue teams (e.g. International Maritime Rescue Federation) and communication companies (e.g. Iridium’s Europe/Middle East/Africa office is in UK). In addition, tourist ships are also likely to be a growing industry in the Arctic and the UK is a player in this area.

13. UK expertise in ship design, efficient propulsion systems, hull coatings and human factors is capable of providing a strong contribution to safe navigation in Arctic waters. The Royal Navy through submarine activities have extensive operational expertise in the region, albeit mostly not in the public domain. UK scientific expertise is capable of performing valuable advisory roles to Arctic nations. It is important to note that science and engineering standards in Arctic nations are already at an advanced level, with experts from Canada, Russia, Norway, Greenland and the United States very active in addressing environmental and engineering challenges for extended Arctic operations, but UK also has some expertise in polar-relevant technologies that could be valuable for Arctic activities.

14. UK university alumni and UK Professional Bodies and Learned Societies (IMarEST, IMechE, SUT etc) have an extensive international membership who will be operating in the Arctic. Methods of safe working, professional standards, and training materials can be developed and ‘exported’ to the region through these international, though UK-rooted, bodies. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is developing an Arctic Shipping Code and the UK - as a significant contributor to IMO - has the ability to influence the development of an effective code that could ensure safe transits of the shipping routes and protection for the environment.

15. The environment needs to be considered to ensure commercial use of the Arctic is sustainable. The UK plays a key role in world-wide environmental monitoring and assessment, this knowledge resource provides an opportunity to protect the Arctic environment. UK scientific expertise in ecosystem assessment, oceanography, marine spatial planning, MetOcean services, offshore survey and deepwater engineering can all be utilised by private or public sector bodies to ensure safe, healthy and clean ocean conditions are maintained. Increased training in Arctic conditions and development of long-range facilities would provide the UK with a key investment in how the region’s environment is protected.

16. The UK can encourage Arctic States to ensure that they operate to the highest environmental standards in developing the region. Most of the commercial vessels operating in the Arctic are likely to be insured by UK based firms – an opportunity therefore for UK to exert influence in relation to care of the environment. The physical UK presence is likely to be limited – geopolitical developments in marine spatial planning and seabed claims would suggest that Arctic States will claim and vigorously police the majority of marine space in the Arctic. There will be very limited areas of ‘High Seas’ within which to operate. Any UK-flagged vessels operating in the region must be seen as exemplars of best working practices.

17. At present there is some disconnect between industry and the science base in the UK. The key issues are that the Arctic environment is very poorly understood, long term data series are very sparse and it is highly likely that there will be surprises and tipping points (abrupt irreversible changes in the environment). The NERC Arctic Research Programme, which aims to improve capabilities for predicting changes in the Arctic, as well as understanding the implications of Arctic climate change for policy-makers, is an excellent start but much more monitoring and research is required to reduce the levels of uncertainty and hence risk. Much of the necessary research can and should be done through international collaboration but this still requires the UK to invest in the relevant programmes.

Q2. What the consequences will be of unrestricted development in the Arctic;

18. Unrestricted development of the Arctic would result in substantial damage, some irreversible, to the environment and to biodiversity, shortening the longevity of commercial exploitation and potentially disrupting important earth system processes. There will certainly be examples of localised heavy impacts related to mining, oil and gas exploration, human and industrial waste and pollution among others. The burning of heavy marine oil (the use of which has been banned in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica) by large numbers of transiting commercial vessels would lead to increased atmospheric pollution, black carbon, etc. The sheer size of the Arctic region and relatively undeveloped nature of the surrounding coastline means that although in many respects it is a pristine area, human impact will take a while to fully overwhelm the area.

19. Oil spills present one of the greatest threats, as spills underneath ice will be particularly difficult to clean. The cold waters, even in summer months, are places where bio-remediation acts at a much slower pace than in warm tropical waters. The impacts of even a modest spill would be felt for many years. In view of this particular risk, it is essential that any companies developing oil resources in the Arctic operate to exemplary standards, with close availability of a full suite of emergency clean-up equipment. Methods of clean up of oil spills under ice are not proven, and one of the key lessons from Deep Water Horizon is that the dispersants can cause significant environmental damage.

20. Establishing Arctic sea routes will likely require building of support infrastructure along the routes, bringing new localised sources of pollution and needing land transport links which are likely to have to deal with melting permafrost and changing hydrology on a vast scale – particularly in Siberia.

21. Increased population in the region will lead to gradual build up of the full range of anthropogenic impacts, initially on a localised basis. The UK will have limited ability to influence Arctic States in the development of their internal resources.

22. Some areas will become suitable for some forms of coastal agriculture and fish-farming, potentially introducing new pollutants and fertiliser run-off into the Arctic.

23. Threats to biodiversity include:

· shipping and resource use could cause disturbance, pollution and transfer of alien species;

· increased development causing land/maritime-use changes, limiting available environment for organisms or restricting migratory routes;

· potential new fishing grounds if exploited unsustainably will result in a loss of the fish stocks. Areas of the Arctic could currently be acting as an area for respite for some North Atlantic and North Pacific species, therefore increased fishing pressure could have implication for fisheries further south;

· migrating species may bring in increased levels of pollutants;

· as the climate warms many species distributions may shift northwards; unrestricted development in the Arctic could prevent these natural shifts and thereby threaten biodiversity further south.

24. Threats to earth system processes include:

· increased pollution could result in changing aerosol patterns which will influence clouds, weather and climate;

· increased pollution in the north will not be restricted to the north and will likely flow southwards thereby increasing pollution of the major earth land-masses;

· eutrophication or changes in land-use/river run-off could result in death of many coastal marine species;

· alteration in food web (from environmental effects on the primary and secondary producers) could result in a reduction in fishing stocks and/or change biogeochemical cycles, which in turn alters weather, climate, etc.

· a large dome of freshwater in the western Arctic Ocean. If this were to spill out into the north Atlantic it could cool Europe by slowing down a key ocean current derived from the Gulf stream.

25. With diminishing sea ice and rising sea level, some of the present infrastructure is under threat owing to increased coastal erosion.

Q3. How Arctic energy reserves might impact on UK energy security and policy;

26. Much depends on the outcome of shale-gas exploitation (‘fracking’) in the UK, North America and continental Europe. If shale gas and coal gas become major sources, the wholesale price of conventional natural gas will be affected and the expensive development of Arctic resources might take longer to materialise However offshore crude oil from the Arctic will become an increasingly important contributor to the global energy supply alongside that already contributed by the Alaskan North Slope and Russian gas supplies.

27. No Arctic energy reserves lie within UK territory, but UK companies will play a major role in exploration and production, building upon their proven expertise in the North Sea and West of Shetland. Resources in Canadian, US, Greenland and Norwegian waters are likely to be available to the UK at minimal political or economic risk.

Q4. How new Arctic shipping routes and fishing grounds might affect UK maritime and fisheries policy;

28. The focus of much of our summer trade will shift northwards, with UK-flagged, crewed, insured or owned ships forming varying portions of the Arctic fleet. It would be prudent to ensure that future classes of British naval vessels and submarines are fully capable of Arctic operations, with at least some equipment capable of year-round operations. They may be required to ensure freedom of navigation, search and rescue, disaster relief or other duties at short notice.

29. Fisheries resources, shipping routes and mineral reserves will fall mostly within the EEZs of Arctic States, and the UK will need to ensure good relations if access is to be permitted.

Q5. What other UK domestic and foreign policies may potentially impact on the Arctic;

30. Possible further devolution, or full independence, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could have an impact on the UK’s relationship with the Arctic. Even without further devolution, ports and harbours, ship repair facilities and maritime sector jobs may relocate to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

31. UK investment in new build nuclear power stations and renewable energy will reduce our need to purchase energy from Arctic States. A reformed Common Fisheries Policy may have a positive impact on fisheries in local waters, potentially reducing our requirements for resources from the Arctic.

Q6. How the Government might use its place on the Arctic Council to influence resource exploitation and help steer development in the region along a more sustainable path. And what other opportunities exist for the UK to influence politics in the region to ensure sustainable development of the region;

32. The UK can use its position on the Arctic Council, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and other international bodies to work towards the widest possible implementation of our high-level vision of ‘clean, healthy, safe and biologically productive oceans and seas’.

33. The UK can play an important role through environmental research, by understanding many of the processes, and incorporating them into models to produce high quality projections of the future trajectory of many parameters in the Arctic. Government sponsors of Hadley Centre could commission the Centre to answer scientific questions about future Arctic change, to create a stronger evidence base to influence politics.

34. The Arctic must not be treated as being isolated, there are wider impacts of Arctic changes that will affect many parts of the northern hemisphere and hence affect energy and food security of a significant population around the world.

15 February 2012

[1] For more details see:  






Prepared 24th February 2012