1.Climate change is disproportionately affecting the polar regions, causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world. Changes in the Arctic have far reaching implications for the UK, as experienced this year, during a prolonged period of extreme weather caused by a weakening of the Arctic Polar Vortex, nicknamed the “Beast from the East”. We launched our inquiry in March 2018 to examine the environmental and social changes happening in the Arctic, the risks these changes pose to people living there, how Arctic change affects the UK and to scrutinise the Government’s Arctic Policy. We received 19 pieces of written evidence for this inquiry and conducted 3 hearings with climate change experts specialising in environmental and social Arctic research, meteorologists, experts on tourism, shipping and sustainable business in the Arctic, and Government Ministers. In August 2018, we visited Tromsø and Svalbard in the Arctic Circle to meet with leaders in Arctic politics, policy and scientific research.
2.There is no universally agreed definition of the Arctic. Current definitions used by the scientific community and policy makers vary from the area within the Arctic Circle (66° 34’ North); the area within the July 10°C isotherm (a line on a map connecting points having the same temperature at a given time or on average over a given period); and the area within the Arctic tree line. These definitions are shown in figure 1. The Arctic is home to diverse and globally important marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, with over 21,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi, which benefit from large areas of intact, functioning ecosystems. The polar regions of the world are often perceived as a pristine wilderness but, unlike Antarctica, which is only inhabited by scientists, the Arctic is home to between four and ten million people depending on the definition. This inquiry looked at the people, communities and businesses living through a changing world.
Figure 1: Source. Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
3.Although there is no agreement on where the Arctic begins and ends, the governance of the Arctic is defined and settled and largely rests with the sovereign Arctic States (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States). All eight Arctic states are members of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is the intergovernmental forum which promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on Arctic issues.
4.While the UK is not an Arctic state, it has been called “the Arctic’s nearest neighbour”. The UK’s weather system is profoundly affected by changes in the Arctic’s climate and many of the challenges facing Arctic communities, such as how to improve digital infrastructure and connectivity, are shared by remote communities in northern parts of the UK, like the Shetland Islands. The UK has been an Observer to the Arctic Council since its establishment in 1996. The UK’s approach to the Arctic is necessarily different to its approach to the Antarctic, as articulated by Sir Alan Duncan MP, Minister for the Polar Regions:
That is the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic. With the Antarctic, so much of it is ours; with the Arctic, none of it is.
5.The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental changes. We heard that climate change is shifting the Arctic climate to a ‘new normal’, characterised by a warmer, wetter and more variable environment and reduced volume of sea and land-based ice.International scientific research has explained a number of the processes at work in the Arctic, but we heard that many unknowns remain. Professor Sheldon Bacon, Head of Marine Physics at the National Oceanography Centre, told us “there is the potential for the evolution of physical processes in the Arctic that we have not come to appreciate yet.” Dr Downie, Head of Polar Programmes at WWF said:
The Arctic was described by Ban-Ki Moon as the ground zero for climate change. Arctic people and Arctic wildlife are living on the frontline.
6.Temperatures in the Arctic are rising rapidly, and faster than the global average. Over the course of the 20th century the Arctic warmed by approximately 2 degrees Celsius. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) explained that “surface temperatures there are rising twice as fast as the global average, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification.”Professor Bacon explained that Arctic amplification is caused by the albedo effect:
… bright colours, whites and silvers reflect light and heat back to where it came from; dark colours absorb it. If you imagine a patch of land in Siberia that is exposed and is surrounded by snow, the dark patch will absorb heat, which will get warmer and melt more snow around it … That writ large is what is happening to the Arctic.
Warmer temperatures are causing sea ice to melt which exposes more of the dark ocean, which absorbs heat and amplifies melting. Accelerated warming of the Arctic is, in part, a product of these feedback processes.
7.Increased Arctic temperatures have caused a reduction of sea ice over time. We heard that melting of sea ice accelerated after the early 2000s and that sea ice extent is now at its lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979. Professor Bacon told us that sea ice “is melting and it is growing thinner and the minimum extent is reducing.” Dr Richard Wood, Head of Oceans and Cryosphere at the Met Office, explained how the trend of reducing sea ice has developed in recent decades:
There are lots of year-to-year variations but if you look at the long-term decline you can split that time in two, before the early 2000s and after the early 2000s. It is certainly the case that the decline has been greater in the second half of that period.
8.Climate models project that Arctic sea ice will continue to decline over the 21st century, but it is uncertain if the rate will keep getting faster. It is projected that the Arctic may be seasonally ice free during the summer as early as the 2050s. The Met Office notes that the rate of decline of sea ice depends on future greenhouse gas emissions. Dr Wood explained that, under a low emissions scenario, it is possible that Arctic sea ice could remain in the summer if emissions were reduced:
A number of studies recently have looked at the difference in the likelihood of a seasonally ice-free Arctic under 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees warming. Pretty consistently they come up with the same kind of answer, which is that at 2 degrees there may be a 40% chance of a seasonally ice-free Arctic whereas at 1.5 the prognosis is dramatically lower, more like a few percent.
The Met Office also said that “Arctic sea ice loss is expected to be broadly reversible if the underlying warming were reversed”. During our visit to Tromsø, however, the Norwegian Polar Institute explained that climate models are currently based on the assumption that most ice in the Arctic is “multiyear”. In the past, Arctic sea ice was mostly made of ice that had remained frozen in the sea for multiple consecutive years. Recently however, more of the sea is “young”, having melted during summer and reformed only a year or two ago. Younger sea ice is more transparent and therefore has a higher albedo effect, leading to amplified melting.
9.Rising surface temperatures are also causing Arctic land ice to melt. Land ice, such as glaciers, are large stores of ice situated on land (either bedrock or sediment), whereas sea ice is the frozen ocean with liquid water underneath. Land ice contributes to sea level rise when it melts. Professor Martin Siegert of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change & Environment told us there are “glaciers dotted all around the Russian high Arctic, Norwegian high Arctic, but Greenland is by far the largest store of land ice and any ice in the Arctic.” Multiple written evidence submissions noted that the Greenland ice sheet has been losing approximately 270 billion tonnes of ice per year on average since the early 2000s. According to Professor Inall of the Scottish Association for Marine Science “a quarter of the current sea level rise signal is from Greenland alone at the current rate of change”. Professor Siegert explained the trend of sea level rise and the contribution of the Greenland ice sheet:
In the latter part of the 19th century, sea level was going up at about 0.8 millimetres per year, in the middle part of the 20th century it was about 2.4 millimetres per year. There has been an acceleration in the rate of sea level rise. About half of it is due to thermal expansion of the ocean … but the other half is due to melting ice and most of that is coming from the Arctic and some glaciers all around the world… If the Greenland ice sheet melts, the whole of it melts, sea level will go up by 7 metres globally.
10.The Royal Society said that the increase in fresh water flux into the surrounding oceans from melting glaciers, including the Greenland ice sheet, has the potential to disrupt ocean circulation patterns, and impact air-sea interactions and related chemical exchange processes that can have consequences on a global scale. The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) suggested that the influx of fresh water from Greenland could also disrupt ocean convection; the mixing of the ocean from deep water, bringing nutrient rich waters to the surface, essential for the marine food chain. Professor Bacon noted that although the changing pace of currents in the Arctic ocean are not yet fully understood, they could have drastic consequences:
As the Arctic Ocean accelerates, it will get more turbulent and that has the potential to stir up the subsurface layer of heat and if that comes to the ocean surface then I think all bets are off. We really have not been able to explore the potential of that for the future of the Arctic Ocean, its environment and the surface layer of sea ice even in the middle of winter.
11.Changes to ocean circulation caused by freshwater flows from melting land ice also have uncertain consequences for UK climate and weather. The NOC’s written evidence suggested that increased freshwater flows into the Arctic and northern North Atlantic could weaken the current that brings ocean heat to northern European latitudes with uncertain consequences for UK climate and weather. In addition, SAMS state in their written evidence “the North Sea is thought to be particularly sensitive to increased freshwater export from the Arctic, with some model simulations predicting stagnation.”
12.We heard that changes in the Arctic Ocean could lead to further environmental change, such as accelerating ice decline both at sea and on land. Professor Inall explained that the flow of heat from the north Atlantic into the Arctic is causing sea ice decline, particularly in the Barents Sea. SAMS describe this warming of the Arctic marine system as “Atlantification.” The Arctic Ocean has traditionally been different from the Atlantic or Pacific, because the water gets warmer with depth (due to inflows from the Atlantic) rather than colder. Atlantification is causing the eastern part Arctic Ocean, the Eurasian Arctic, to become more like the Atlantic Ocean. SAMS outlined the additional consequences of Atlantification in their written evidence:
The consequences associated with “Atlantification” of the Arctic include (i) greater heat and moisture exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere which is likely to influence midlatitude weather patterns; (ii) changes to biological productivity with associated effects on the food chain; and (iii) freshening of the ocean surface layers, fresh water storage and export within the Arctic.
13.The Arctic Ocean is acidifying at twice the rate of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water. Professor Inall explained that acidification is affecting animals’ ability to create their shells from calcium carbonate and it affects the metabolism of some marine animals. Dr Coffey, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told us that DEFRA’s chief scientist has undertaken a review of ocean acidification and what steps can be taken to relieve its impact on marine wildlife.
14.According to The Royal Society, changes to the Arctic climate system have resulted in thawing permafrost. Permafrost is rock, soil or sediment that has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. Thawing permafrost releases methane, a greenhouse gas with 30 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2). Permafrost thaw has local and regional impacts on hydrology, vegetation and the stability of land surfaces. Our predecessor’s 2012 report Protecting the Arctic expressed concern about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, especially given that the release of 1% of Arctic potential methane would triple the current rate of global warming. The British Ecological Society informed us that although there remains uncertainty around permafrost thaw, even a small amount of thaw would be significant:
The Arctic region contains approximately 1672 Petagrams (Pg) of soil organic carbon - 50% of the global total–much of which is stored in permafrost. While projections of thaw rates are highly uncertain, and the level of greenhouse gases released from permafrost has so far been small, the loss of even a small proportion of this carbon store could have significant climate impacts and permafrost thaw is expected to contribute substantially to future global greenhouse gas emissions.
15.The British Ecological Society noted the important role of Arctic vegetation dynamics for determining the global climate system. It told us that Arctic vegetation is “greening” due to gradual summer temperature increases, but also “browning” due to the increasing frequency of extreme winter weather events. Vegetation cover is also moving progressively northwards. These changes in vegetation affect wildlife habitats, soil processes and carbon gains and losses. In particular “browning” increases the risk of wildfires, a previously unknown phenomenon in the Arctic. During our visit to Tromsø, the Arctic Council Secretariat informed us that wildfires were, for the first time, a problem for Arctic States in 2018. They informed us that Sweden’s wildfires were so severe that they sought assistance from other countries, but that Finland was unable to help as they were grappling with the same issue. In addition, the Norwegian Polar Institute explained that, in some regions, the higher frequency and warmer temperatures had caused drought, leading to significantly smaller harvests.
16.Professor Inall suggested there remain a number of unknowns regarding how thawing permafrost and change to Arctic vegetation will influence the wider the role of the carbon cycle in the Arctic:
There are huge stores of carbon in the permafrost and we don’t know whether the Arctic is going to be creating more carbon in the atmosphere or less… [These] are the unknowns: the fate of the permafrost, the fate of vegetation moving northwards as permafrost thaws and greening. The greening is moving northwards of plants that take CO2 out of the atmosphere, but there is also a browning effect whereby you unlock carbon that is stored in the permafrost and as there is more rain and non-frozen water it washes this carbon out into the ocean, which becomes available and possibly more efflux of carbon dioxide coming out of the atmosphere. We just don’t know which will dominate.
17.The Arctic is undergoing profound environmental change as physical processes react to warming surface and ocean temperatures. Sea ice extent and thickness have been reducing for decades, and melting has accelerated since the early 2000s. Sea ice is now at its lowest level since records began and the Arctic ocean is projected to be ice free in the summer as soon as the 2050s unless emissions are reduced. The loss of 270 billion tonnes of land ice from Greenland each year is contributing to sea level rise and disrupting ocean circulation patterns. The acidification and Atlantification of the Arctic Ocean are causes for significant concern as they threaten marine wildlife. Permafrost thaw has the potential to release potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the “Greening” and “Browning” of Arctic vegetation has already led to wildfires and the destruction of habitats. The complex interactions between permafrost thaw, vegetation and the Arctic carbon cycle are not yet fully understood, nor is the rate at which sea ice will decline.
18.The environmental change in the Arctic is a global concern and a global responsibility. The major physical and ecological changes in the Arctic driven by rising temperatures highlight the need for the UK to strengthen its emissions targets to be in line with the UK’s obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement and the Climate Change Act–this should include setting a net-zero target by 2050 at the very latest. While scientific research has made great strides in understanding environmental changes in the Arctic, ‘known unknowns’ remain. We recommend that the Government increases funding and support to UK scientists to advance global understanding of these scenarios and ensure that these groups continue to have access to vital funding provided by the EU through programmes like Horizon 2020.
19.Evidence suggests plastics and microplastics (plastic particles smaller than 5mm) are widespread across the Arctic, including beaches, the deep sea floor, floating and frozen in sea ice. Our predecessor Committee examined the environmental impacts of microplastics in 2016, and called for a ban on microbeads. The UK Government’s Arctic policy document, Beyond the Ice, published in 2018 states:
Large quantities [of fragments of plastic] have emerged in the Arctic and have become frozen into the sea ice. The accelerated melting of sea ice could release 1,000 billion plastic particles in the coming years. That’s 200 times the amount of plastic currently found in the ocean.
20.The latest report commissioned by the Government, The State of the Polar Oceans 2018, by UK and Norwegian scientists, highlighted the scale of problem caused by plastic in the Arctic:
A Norwegian study recently found up to 234 microplastic particles in a single litre of melted Arctic sea ice. Once these particles enter the seas they are ingested by sea creatures who mistake them for food. The long-term effects of this are uncertain, but scientists are initiating monitoring programmes of plastic levels in both polar oceans, and working to understand the effect this proliferation of plastic waste is having on polar ecosystems.
21.According to the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) “it has been estimated that between 62,000–105,000 tonnes of plastic enter [the Arctic] per year”. Beaches across the Arctic have plastic litter: “a study of beach litter in the Svalbard Archipelago recorded quantities similar to those from densely populated areas, with plastics representing over 80% of the overall litter mass”. NERC states that coastal clean-up initiatives suggest that there are locally significant sources for this pollution including fishing vessels and other marine activity. Professor Siegert from the Grantham Institute explained where most Arctic plastic pollution is coming from:
… a high proportion of the plastics that get into the North Sea will end up going further north and end up in the Arctic. By and large, plastics that we emit from rivers in the United Kingdom going into the North Sea, and possibly even to the west as well, will be tracking north and heading to the Arctic. It is difficult to ascribe, to attribute how much of that is our fault, but it is also quite difficult to see how that plastic can come from many places other than north-western Europe.
22.Research by the Plastic Adrift team at Imperial College London, led by Dr Erik van Sebille, has found that ocean plastic pollution from the UK that does not wash back onto the beach or sink to the ocean floor drifts towards the Barents Sea, north of Norway, before circulating in the Arctic. When asked if the UK should be taking a large amount of responsibility for those plastics, Professor Siegert said:
Personally, yes, of course. We know it is happening, we know we are emitting plastics and we know where a lot of it is ending up.
23.Plastic is also found floating in Arctic ice-free waters. SAMS noted that there may be a 6th so-called garbage patch forming in the Barents Sea due to the amount of floating plastic in the Arctic. Plastic in the Barents Sea most probably originated in the North Atlantic region, including Northwestern Europe and the UK. Dr Coffey told us that steps are in place to reduce marine litter, such as working with Commonwealth countries to reduce the amount of litter entering the marine environment. Beyond the Ice states that monitoring and further research into marine litter are under way which “will be available to the Arctic Council and its working groups to help inform future policies on marine litter in the Arctic Ocean”. Dominic Pattinson, Head of International Marine Policy at Defra, recognised “the main thing is to tackle the sources of plastic coming from the UK”. Sir Alan Duncan MP, Minister for the Polar Regions, stated the Government’s actions to tackle plastic at source, internationally and domestically, are set out in Beyond the Ice and the 25-year Environment Plan.
24.One trillion plastic particles frozen into Arctic sea ice could be released into the ocean in the coming years through accelerated melting from rising temperatures. Between 62,000 and 105,000 tonnes of plastic enter the Arctic every year and plastic beach litter in the Arctic is comparable to densely populated areas, despite its remote and relatively uninhabited nature. The UK has contributed to plastic pollution in the Arctic and must therefore act swiftly to tackle pollution.
25.We welcome the Government’s commitment to tackle the sources of plastic pollution including the ban on the manufacture and sale of microplastics which our predecessor Committee called for in 2016, and which came into force in 2018. This ambition must be met with effective plastic reduction policies to ensure extended producer responsibility to include responsibility for collection, transportation, recycling, disposal, treatment and recovery of its packaging, improved design for recyclability and to create the necessary infrastructure to meet domestic demand. We recommend that the Government contribute to clean-up operations on Arctic beaches to take responsibility for the plastic pollution from the UK that has been transported to the Arctic by ocean currents. We heard that research into ocean plastics is in its infancy. The Government should commit funding to research the potential consequences of an influx of plastic particles trapped in melting Arctic sea ice and ensure that academics and scientists have continued access to research funding and opportunities by UK participation in EU schemes. Following our predecessor Committee’s report on microplastics we welcome the Chief Medical Officer’s recent announcement of its consultation on the health implications of these plastic particles entering our food chains. In addition, in its response to this report, the Government should set out a clear timeline for a comprehensive and wide-ranging plan to reduce UK plastic pollution–not least because of its impact in the Arctic. That should include, for example, bringing forward the existing 2042 plastic waste phase-out date, a ban on plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle, a commitment to reforming the Packaging Recovery Note scheme and expediting a nationwide Deposit Return Scheme.
26.The significant environmental changes in the Arctic mean that many local communities need to change their way of life. We heard a range of concerns about Arctic communities adapting and adjusting as local knowledge of the environment becomes less reliable; increased melting of sea ice is causing hazardous hunting conditions, and trails connecting communities are melting away. Many communities that rely on subsistence hunting are struggling to sustain themselves. Professor Wolff from the Royal Society suggested that the UK should recognise its partial responsibility for the change in the Arctic and how it affects people there:
The way that we in the UK tend to look at Arctic change is that it is something happening in the Arctic that might affect us but we do not tend to think so often about this other aspect that Rod [from WFF] was talking about, that Arctic change is something that the rest of us are doing that is affecting people in the Arctic. They have not contributed to it, even per capita, anything like as much as us, so they are innocent victims in this. The fact that we have such strength in Arctic research in the UK means that it is something that we can offer to them.
27.Professor Ford explained that winter roads provide crucial access to isolated communities, and that unmaintained trails across the ice are vital for small, remote communities in the Arctic. He told us about the risks to community transportation networks:
The ice is thinner in areas where it is normally thick. We see the ice freezing up later in the year, thawing earlier in the year. We are seeing it taking longer for the ice to reach a thickness at which it can be safely used.
All these factors affect transportation on the ice. For Inuit communities in northern Canada and Greenland, which is where I do most of my work, that is the main means of transportation. There are no permanent roads between communities. People rely on semi-permanent trails on the sea ice and on the land. With climate change, it is an increasing danger. We do see increasing instances of people falling through the ice.
28.Permafrost thaw also presents a societal and economic challenge for Arctic communities. The British Ecological Society said that buildings and roads are vulnerable to structural damage, subsidence and collapse as thawing permafrost makes them unstable and weak. The potential cumulative cost from climate-related damage to Arctic infrastructure is estimated at up to US$5.5 billion over the course of the century.
29.Changes in wildlife species and changes in the sea ice have a direct impact on food security in the Arctic, especially for those people relying on subsistence farming. Dr Downie, from WWF explained:
The profound effects both on people and wildlife were very clearly articulated at a recent event [arranged by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic)]… called the Arctic Voices. This was a historic first, in which we had women from Inuit, Gwich’in and Sami communities come over and, for the first time ever in the Houses of Parliament, spoke with absolute passion and conviction about the effects of climate change on their societies, on their subsistence livelihoods …
We heard from those women how, for example, changes in caribou migration and distribution is changing across Alaska. We heard from the Inuit how sea ice loss is affecting their ability to travel and to hunt and to fish sustainably in the Arctic.
30.Professor Ford expressed concern that food insecurity hits less affluent communities the hardest. He explained that those in remote communities who are financially secure can afford adaptive measures, such as a boat to enable hunting on open water, but those who cannot afford such equipment cannot adapt. He continued:
It is often those people who cannot afford it who also cannot afford to buy food in the store. If you go into an Arctic supermarket, you will see how expensive things are. I have seen a litre of milk for about £8, a loaf of bread for £6 or £7. Replacing food that people hunt and fish with food from the store is not always possible.
31.We heard that the Arctic may be used to understand how climate impacts might play out globally. The Minister for Polar Affairs, Sir Alan Duncan explained “I think they [Arctic communities] are very vulnerable” but that the UK does “not get directly involved with local communities ourselves, because none of that territory belongs to the UK as such”. Instead, he explained that the UK has a co-ordinating role:
We are very focused on co-ordinating the people affected, businesses, scientists and environmentalists, to ensure that we know exactly what is going on, so that we can make and encourage the policy decisions that can best address the challenges that are definitely arising on the back of this.
32.The UK’s Arctic policy paper, Beyond the Ice, also explains that researchers in the UK are committed to “listening to, and working with, indigenous communities, to ensure the best outcome for local communities and for science”. The Minister explained how the UK helps remote Arctic communities through bilateral relationships:
I think wherever we have a strong bilateral relationship and identify an area of interest and importance we will use our diplomatic engagement to try to influence that country and work with them wherever possible.
33.The key to helping local Arctic communities is to provide useful adaptation measures which will enable all members of the community, regardless of income, to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. Professor Ford expressed frustration at the lack of adaptation and resilience measures in both iterations of the UK’s Arctic policy:
I read the 2013 document on the train here called “Adapting to Change” but in the text nowhere was there anything on adapting to change. What changes do we need to adapt to? What are the adaptation policies available?
I have read the 2018 one too and I also found very little information there about the adaptation policy landscape. What is taking place on the brief of adaptation? What policies at present are going to be affected by climate change both now and in the future? What are some of the policy needs? The policy science side of that thing is completely absent. That is one area that I think it is deficient and needs to be addressed moving forward.
34.Defra leads on UK adaptation policy and works with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Arctic Policy. The UK has a commitment to increase the number of communities implementing adaptation policies under Sustainable Development Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities. This SDG includes specific targets to provide safe transport and support positive economic, social and environmental links between communities. We heard that the scale of change facing Arctic communities is representative of change people around the world, including in the UK, will soon experience. Professor Inall noted that:
Scotland has a long history of rural communities having various trials and tribulations over the decades and centuries. Much of the history and the stories of those communities speaks a lot to some of the issues that are going on in the Arctic communities now who are finding their environment changing and being displaced. There is a strong link between rural, remote communities on how they develop in those changing environments and historically how communities have developed and how those lessons may be shared and learned.
35.Arctic amplification is forcing Arctic communities to adapt quickly to higher temperatures, threatening their transport networks and food security. As part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UK has commitments to create sustainable communities at home and abroad. As part of these obligations the UK should build a net zero emission economy by 2050, which will help reverse the albedo effect. We believe that Defra’s adaptation portfolio could benefit from sharing adaptation expertise, including the successes and failures of adaptation measures, with Arctic states.
36.The UK has an opportunity to drive forward the Arctic Council’s focus on the SDGs. We recommend the Government set a series of adaptation targets for the next iteration of UK Arctic policy within the next twelve months, when the Government should publish an annex to the Arctic Policy Framework. These targets should outline how the UK will help Arctic communities to adapt to changes in the Arctic environment now and in the future. The Government should fund more research into the social consequences of climate change. We believe there is an opportunity for DEFRA to share expertise on adaptation policy which could prove mutually beneficial, helping Arctic communities to adapt whilst preparing for future UK adaptation measures.
37.Physical processes in the Arctic interconnect with the UK’s climate and weather systems. The most recent example of this was the “Beast from the East”, an unusually prolonged cold spell in the UK in February 2018, caused by a weakening of the polar vortex. Dr Wood, from the Met Office explained that changes to UK weather patterns are caused by changes in the Arctic’s atmospheric circulation. The Arctic is experiencing unusual weather; in March 2018, Svalbard was 20 degrees warmer than the average for that time of year. Unusual weather events such as this drive more extreme weather patterns both in the UK and at mid-latitudes across the globe.
38.Periods of extreme weather are also becoming more prolonged. As the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet, the temperature difference between the Arctic and the rest of the globe is decreasing. This lack of tension in the global climate results in weather systems stalling, passing slowly or even stopping. Dr Coffey noted that Arctic weather events are “relevant” to extreme weather events in the UK. The Minister said that the Government is taking action to address climate change on a broader scale and referred to the implementation of the 2008 Climate Change Act as an example.
39.Additionally, some research shows a potential link between Arctic sea ice variations and the European climate. According to the Met Office “the links are not fully established yet and this is an active area of research which will be addressed over the next few years”. We are pleased to hear that further research into the relationship between sea ice and the UK’s climate is already underway through the Polar Amplification Model Intercomparison Project (PAMIP).
40.Arctic weather patterns affect UK weather and can cause extreme weather events. Predicting future implications for the UK’s climate requires complex modelling which is being undertaken by leading UK institutions including the Met Office. We welcome the ongoing research undertaken by the Met Office to understand the relationship between reductions in sea ice and the UK’s future climate and recommend this work by the Polar Amplification Model Intercomparison Project is fed into future National Adaptation Programmes at the earliest opportunity.
41.The Arctic is home to marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, harbouring over 21,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi. The Arctic has many migratory species of importance to ecosystems across the world, “including Arctic breeding birds that migrate to the UK and as far south as Africa, and ocean mammals and seabirds that travel through the Bering Strait to the Pacific”. The Arctic Council has a working group for the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), which provides collaboration for scientists, indigenous peoples and conservation managers on issues affecting the conservation and sustainable utilisation of shared species and habitats in the Arctic.
42.The 2017 Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) Evidence Report notes climate change is likely to cause reductions in population sizes and distribution ranges, leading to some species no longer breeding in the UK. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) said that the UK supports internationally important populations of waterbirds during winter. Their written evidence states “significant warming is projected to reduce the Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding ranges of waterbirds by about 50% by the end of the century”.
43.According to the BTO, the UK has obligations to conserve these globally important populations of water birds through the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Wintering populations of Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding waterbirds in Britain. The UK also has a commitment to protect biodiversity under the UN Sustainable Development Goals 15 to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”. The DEFRA Minister agreed that “protecting biodiversity in the Arctic area is absolutely key.” The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, an Arctic Council Report containing the best available science on the status and trends of Arctic biodiversity, concluded that although Arctic biodiversity is being degraded, decisive action can help to sustain ecosystems. The report recommended “improved monitoring and research to survey, map, monitor and understand Arctic biodiversity”.
44.We were encouraged to hear from Dr Coffey that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has been monitoring Arctic water bird populations for decades and collaborates internationally. According to the Government, the UK also helps to protect Arctic biodiversity in the marine environment by “continuing to keep our involvement with international agreements”, such as the International Whaling Commission. We were encouraged to hear the Government are working towards delivering new marine protected areas through UNCLOS, particularly as the UK is committed to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” under SDG 14, Life Below Water. We see the implementation of new Marine Protected Areas as crucial to help protect Arctic marine wildlife and meet our commitment to SDG 14.
45.Arctic biodiversity is crucial for many ecosystems around the world. The UK’s biodiversity has significant links with the Arctic including many migratory birds, such as waterbirds. The waterbird population is expected to decline by about 50% by the end of the century due to Arctic warming. For the UK to meet its commitment to “take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species” under Sustainable Development Goal 15, the protection of biodiversity in the Arctic area is absolutely key. We recommend that the Government set clear, measurable targets to protect Arctic biodiversity in line with SDG Goal 15. We would like to see monitoring and research to survey, map, and understand Arctic biodiversity extended, enabling the UK to contribute further research to Arctic Council working group on the conservation of Arctic flora and fauna (CAFF).
2 British Ecological Society (), Edinburgh University Glaciology (), The Royal Society (), Met Office (), Professor James Ford ()
6 , British Ecological Society (), The Royal Society (), Met Office (), The National Oceanography Centre ()
7 National Oceanography Centre ()
12 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
14 Met Office ()
15 Edinburgh University Glaciology ()
17 Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (), The Royal Society (), Edinburgh University Glaciology ())
19 The Royal Society ()
20 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
22 The National Oceanography Centre ()
23 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
25 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
26 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
27 British Ecological Society ()
30 The Royal Society ()
31 British Ecological Society ()
32 British Ecological Society ()
33 British Ecological Society ()
35 Foreign and Commonwealth Office ()
36 Beyond the Ice, HM Government, 2018
37 The State of the Polar Oceans: Making Sense of Our Changing World, British Antarctic Survey and Norwegian Polar Institute, 2018
38 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (),
39 Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) ()
42 Scottish Association for Marine Science ()
43 Grantham Institute, Imperial College London ()
45 Beyond the Ice, HM Government, 2018
47 Foreign and Commonwealth Office ()
48 Professor James Ford ()
51 British Ecological Society ()
54 Professor James Ford ()
65 Met Office ()
66 British Ecological Society ()
67 British Ecological Society ()
68 limate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report, 2017, Adaptation Sub Committee, Committee on Climate Change, Chapter 3, Natural environment and natural assets, p127
69 BTO ()
70 BTO ()
72 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment 2013, Arctic Council working group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)
Published: 29 November 2018