"Arctic warming is twice as fast as the global average"

Interview with Prof. Karin Lochte, Director at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research

11.5.2016 | And what currently happens in the Arctic will affect the whole of Europe, says Prof. Karin Lochte, coordinator of the EU-PolarNet project. Lochte stresses the importance of international research in the Arctic, and cautions that these sensitive ecosystems need to be protected.
Horizon Magazine: The EU has just published a policy for the Arctic. What's the significance of this, what's the urgency?

Prof. Karin Lochte
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Prof. Karin Lochte
Prof. Karin Lochte: We see that the changes in the Arctic are very rapid. The biggest indicator is the sea ice and temperature changes. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the average of the rest of the world. So what happens is that there is 'a canary in the coal mine', so to speak. It shows us in which direction we are going. It is important for Europe to understand what is happening in the Arctic and how it will affect us. It will affect agriculture, it will affect the question do we need a lot of oil in winter or not, and various other aspects.

What is your view on the final text of the policy, does it give the research priorities that you had hoped to see?

I think the priorities are right and I am very happy that research has been given an important place. One thing, of course, is the connection towards economic development, which we don't necessarily see. We still need to do a lot of basic science in the Arctic and we need to have observation data in the Arctic to understand, for instance, how the disappearance of sea ice influences the weather over Europe. In the long run this will also be important for the economy, but it is several steps away.

You are the coordinator of the EU-PolarNet project, which is aiming to develop an integrated European research programme for the Arctic, and that forms a central part of the EU policy. What are the technologies and the capabilities that this collaboration will be able to bring to Arctic research?

We are very good at observation technologies, to maintain long-term observation at a high scientific standard from the atmosphere into the ocean. Good observations and data are one of the key issues. How can we bring all of the observations done around the Arctic Ocean, and from the ships within the Arctic Ocean, together in a comprehensive and well-managed data system so that everyone can use them? A coherent observation strategy is a big effort that many countries are working on at the moment. We can, I think, also contribute a lot in technologies here, especially when it comes to systems which send their data all year round by satellite, and systems which work autonomously.

What about research infrastructure?

We would like to develop a plan on how we can share ice-strengthened ships and heavy ice breakers so that countries that don't have their own ships can have access to these expensive infrastructures. Second, we have a lot of research stations around the Arctic and we would like to make sure that these stations also are open to international partners. Basically develop a plan of how these different infrastructures really can serve science so that the scientist goes to where he or she can do the best measurements and not only go to the station of their own country, which may not be suitable because it is in the wrong place. So there is a big aspect of really developing a European concept of how we can use our infrastructure jointly.

In Paris in December last year, world leaders agreed to keep global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times. How does that inform the research programme you are developing?

That's a difficult question because, in a way, in the Arctic our main task at the moment is to observe and just to prepare for the changes, so what is the adaptation necessary. We see that our main aim is to improve our forecasts, make sure that we actually get people prepared for what is ahead of them, and help decision-makers to find the right solutions where they can say, 'We have to stop this here, because this will cause changes in the climate or in the ecosystem of the Arctic.'

I'll give you an example, if we use heavy oil, this stuff which gives off black carbon when ships are going through the Arctic, the black carbon settles on the ice. It will melt the ice faster, so it would be helpful to have an assessment of how much harm this black carbon actually does. If it does significant harm and causes rapid melting, we should have a declaration that ships should only either use marine diesel, or have a scrubber for the fuel. This is an example of what research can provide and where we can actually help to minimise impacts.
The oldest Arctic ice is disappearing fast
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(© NASA scientist Joey Comiso, PD)

The oldest Arctic ice is disappearing fast | due to global warming. Sea ice coverage in 1980 (bottom) and 2012 (top), as observed by passive microwave sensors on NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite and by the Special Sensor Microwave Imager/Sounder SSMIS. Multi-year ice is shown in bright white, while average sea ice cover is shown in light blue to milky white. The data shows the ice cover for the period of 1 November through 31 January in their respective years.

The objective of the integrated research programme is to include the views of different stakeholders. What about people living in the Arctic, what are their concerns?

Their needs are different, the Sami are reindeer hunters, so here comes the question of how does vegetation change, how do the diseases of the animals change. In Greenland it is different. They would like to exploit the mineral resources. So they would have questions on how can one protect the environment if they want to extract these resources.

What about drilling for oil in the Arctic, this is a big question facing the region, how can research contribute?

Certain countries and companies have already done explorative drilling, which is extremely expensive under those conditions. I think we need to clear up, before we really start to exploit these resources, what the environmental impact is. Can we contain it if there is an accident? Which measures can we actually use to make sure that we do not destroy a very sensitive environment? We can't just go ahead and say our technologies are good enough, I doubt that, to be quite honest. Many environmentalists and NGOs are against this and also our plea is, let us first find out how the environment would be impacted and what we can do to really contain impacts, and if we cannot contain it, we should say we shouldn't touch it.

This is, of course, the view of a cautious scientist, maybe economists have a different view, but the damage which could be done if we don't do it in a careful way is very great.

Courtesy of Horizon, The EU Research and Innovation Magazine, by the EU Commission
  (© Horizon Magazine)
Ben Deighton

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