Improving Future Assessments
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment represents the first effort to comprehensively examine climate change and its impacts in the Arctic region. As such, it represents the beginning of a process. The assessment brought together the findings of hundreds of scientists from around the world whose research focuses on the Arctic. It also included the insights of Indigenous Peoples who have developed deep understandings through their long history of living and gathering knowledge in this region. Linking these scientific and indigenous perspectives is still in its early stages, and clearly has potential to improve understanding of climate change and its impacts. A great deal has been learned from the ACIA process and interactions, though much remains to be studied and better understood. This process should continue, with a focus on reducing uncertainties, filling gaps in knowledge identified during the assessment, and more explicitly including issues that interact with climate change and its impacts.
A critical self-assessment of the ACIA reveals achievements as well as deficiencies. The assessment covered potential arctic-wide impacts on the environment extensively. Estimates of economic impacts, on the other hand, and of impacts at the sub-regional level, were covered in a more cursory and exploratory manner, and greater development of such estimates must be a future priority task. Studies that integrate climate change impacts with effects due to other stresses (and thus assess the cumulative vulnerability of communities) were covered only in a preliminary fashion in this assessment.
Understanding and gaps in knowledge vary across the breadth of the assessment. Not all aspects need to be re-assessed comprehensively and not all aspects need to be assessed at the same time; some developments in science and some environmental changes take longer than others. Three major topics are thus suggested as future priorities for analysis: regional impacts, socioeconomic impacts, and vulnerabilities. These all involve improving the understanding of impacts on society. In each of these areas, involvement of a range of experts and stakeholders, especially including arctic indigenous communities, would help fill gaps in knowledge and provide relevant information to decision makers at all levels.
- Sub-regional Impacts: There is a need to focus future assessments on smaller regions, perhaps at the local level, where an assessment of impacts of climate change has the greatest relevance and utility for residents and their activities.
- Socioeconomic Impacts: Important economic sectors in the Arctic include oil and gas production, mining, transportation, fisheries, forestry, and tourism. Most of these sectors will experience direct and indirect impacts due to climate change, but in most cases, only qualitative information on economic impacts is presently available.
- Assessing Vulnerabilities: Vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to adverse effects of multiple interacting stresses. Assessing vulnerability involves knowledge not just of the consequences of stresses and their interactions, but also of the capacity of the system to adapt.
To address these three high-priority research agendas will require a suite of improvements in long-term monitoring, process studies, climate modeling, and analyses of impacts on society.
- Long-Term Monitoring: Long-term time series of climate and climate-related parameters are available from only a few locations in the Arctic. Continuation of long-term records is crucial, along with upgrading and expanding the observing systems that monitor snow and ice features, runoff from major rivers, ocean parameters, and changes in vegetation, biodiversity, and ecosystem processes.
- Process Studies: Many arctic processes require further study, both through scientific investigations and through more detailed and systematic documentation of indigenous knowledge. Priorities include collection and interpretation of data related to climate and the physical environment, and studies of the rates and ranges of change for plants, animals, and ecosystem function. Such studies often involve linking climate models with models of ecosystem processes and other elements of the arctic system.
- Modeling: Improvements in modeling arctic climate and its impacts are needed, including in the representation of ocean mixing and linkages to sea ice, permafrost-soil-vegetation interactions, important feedback processes, and extreme events. Model refinement and validation is required for models within scientific disciplines, and there is also a need to link and integrate models across disciplines. Developing, verifying, and applying very high-resolution coupled regional models to improve projections of regional changes in climate would also help provide more useful information to local decision-makers.
- Analysis of Impacts on Society: Improving projections of the consequences of climate change on society will depend in part on the advances in climate modeling mentioned above as well as on generating improved scenarios of population and economic development in the Arctic, developing and applying impact scenarios, forging improved links between scientific and indigenous knowledge, and more thoroughly identifying and evaluating potential measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Outreach in the Arctic
Finding effective ways of bringing the information gathered in the ACIA process to the communities of the Arctic presents an additional challenge. A variety of scientific, governmental, and non-governmental organizations plan to work to make the results of the ACIA process useful to a wide variety of constituents, from those who live and work on the land to those who determine local, national, and international policies relevant to the climate challenge.
The ACIA has built on the substance and conclusions of the assessments prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which evaluate and summarize the world’s most authoritative information regarding global climate change and its impacts. The most recent report of the IPCC, the Third Assessment Report, was released in 2001. The next IPCC assessment is in the early stages of development and is planned for publication in 2007. Just as the ACIA has built on IPCC’s past evaluations, the 2007 IPCC report will build on ACIA’s findings with regard to the Arctic, doing so in a way that adds more global context.
There are also other national and international efforts that offer opportunities to further understanding of the impacts of climate change and ultraviolet radiation. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization have organized ongoing assessments of ozone depletion and its impacts. The International Conference on Arctic Research Planning II is drawing upon ACIA results as it develops a research agenda for the coming decades. The International Polar Year (IPY), being planned by the world’s scientific community for 2007/2009 will provide another opportunity to focus research attention on climate change and other important arctic issues. It was the International Geophysical Year in 1957/8 that initiated the first systematic measurements of stratospheric ozone and atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus laying the basis for the discoveries of ozone depletion and greenhouse gas-induced climate change. Without these decades of observations, the downward trend in stratospheric ozone and the continuous increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide could not have been detected.
The gaps in knowledge and needs for improved monitoring identified during the ACIA process are already affecting a variety of international research agendas. One of the primary goals already approved for the upcoming IPY is to study and evaluate present and future changes in climate in the polar regions and to evaluate the global-scale impacts of these changes. ACIA’s findings can help to focus the research efforts of the IPY and other efforts. In turn, research initiated by other efforts can help fill the gaps that ACIA has identified in order to help carry out more detailed assessments of the importance of climate change for the Arctic.