Global Collaboration to Face the Arctic Challenge

September 27, 2016
Noel Bakhtian, PhD
formerly Senior Policy Advisor and Executive Secretary
Arctic Executive Steering Committee at White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Associate Editor
AAAS Science & Diplomacy


We’re seeing it all too often in the headlines: a new Arctic temperature record, villages threatened by coastal erosion, retreating glaciers, energy prices soaring, sea ice disappearing, biodiversity at risk, permafrost thaw to accelerate global climate change, infrastructure crumbling, relocation imminent…It might be easy to shove away the panic, skip to the next article, and avoid engaging on these issues, except for three things:

  1. This is affecting people and ecosystems now.
  2. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.1
  3. This is a foreshadow of the global condition.2

This is a shared challenge, and so must the solutions be. Not just Alaska, but in synchrony with the Lower 49. Not just the Arctic Eight, but all nations working in conjunction.

To this end, President Obama established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) in January 2015, a body charged with providing guidance on Arctic priorities and enhancing the coordination of efforts across U.S. Executive Branch agencies under the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. One of AESC’s major accomplishments, almost a year in the making, is unfolding tomorrow. The Administration is hosting the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28th, bringing together ministers of science from the Arctic nations and other countries around the world, along with representatives from Arctic indigenous groups. Recognizing that a cooperative, global approach to Arctic science will accelerate our understanding of the changes affecting the Arctic and impacts on the rest of the world, the White House Arctic Science Ministerial will create a framework for increased international scientific Arctic collaboration under four key themes3:

  • Understanding Arctic-Science Challenges and their Regional and Global Implications;
  • Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing;
  • Applying Expanded Scientific Understanding of the Arctic to Build Regional Resilience and Shape Global Responses; and
  • Using Arctic Science as a Vehicle for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education and Citizen Empowerment.

This might seem to be the culmination of a sustained focus on the Arctic - a year ago this month, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit our nation’s Arctic; the United States released joint statements this year with Canada and the Nordic nations with a focus on climate, energy, and Arctic leadership; and the 2-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council is coming to a close. But this can’t be the peak.

Rather, we should see this as a call to action. A call to researchers, policy-makers, educators, the media, innovators, citizen-scientists, and students. A call to the private sector, non-profit sector, academia, local and state governments, Alaska Native tribal governments, and international organizations. A call to the global community. What’s happening in the Arctic affects us all, and there’s a role for everyone to play. We must continue what our leaders have started, play our role in following through on commitments, and persevere in understanding, mitigating, adapting to, and building resilience to the changes we’re seeing in the Arctic. There are too many reasons to act now and act together. So let’s get to work.

Mendenhall Glacier, about 12 miles from downtown Juneau in southeast Alaska.
Photo taken during the author's visit to Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska.

1  The Arctic is warming two times faster than rest of the world. The loss of Arctic snow and ice results in rising sea levels and a higher occurrence of extreme weather events, like storm surges and drought. These temperature increases and loss of sea ice in the Arctic have the potential to alter weather patterns across the globe. Warming temperatures have resulted in more extensive wildfires: just last year, Arctic wildfires burned roughly the land area of the state of New York. 80% of the land in Alaska is underlain by some type of permafrost, and permafrost thaw in the Arctic has the potential to release large quantities of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, to the atmosphere. Most of these contribute to a feedback loop that exacerbates the impacts of climate change.

2  In the words of President Obama: “Make no mistake, the looming crisis in the Alaska Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition.”