'Out of time': Scientists sound alarm ahead of White House Arctic meeting

Experts are urging participants at the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial meeting in Washington, to take immediate steps to mitigate drastic climate change impacts in the Arctic.

‘What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic’

Multi-year ice on the shores of Frobisher Bay. 'We’ve run out of time,' says Peter Schlosser, director of the Columbia Climate Center and lead author of the paper. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

A group of international experts is urging science ministers at the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial meeting to take immediate steps to mitigate drastic climate change impacts in the Arctic.  

The meeting, which takes place today in Washington, D.C., will bring together key science leaders from around the world — as well as Indigenous representatives — to discuss Arctic research, monitoring and data-sharing.

In anticipation of the meeting, the Columbia Climate Center hosted a workshop in July in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs, which produced a white paper called 'A 5 C Arctic in a 2 C World.' 

Paris deal will not be enough

"We've run out of time," says Peter Schlosser, the centre's director and lead author of the paper.

Polar bears in Hudson Bay. The study says climate change is already affecting Arctic wildlife. (Martin Harvey/WWF)

Simply implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change — which was hashed out in a major international conference in late 2015 — will not be enough, he argues. 

So far, 191 countries have signed the agreement and 61 have ratified it. But Schlosser warns that Arctic temperatures are still likely to increase by as much as 5 C.

This change could have significant consequences for people, weather systems, landscape, wildlife and economies in the Arctic and throughout the rest of the world.

Snowmobile tracks in Iqaluit's Frobisher Bay. Changes in climate are making travelling on the sea ice in the Arctic less predictable. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," says Brad Ack, the World Wildlife Fund's senior vice president for oceans.

The paper warns that changes in the Arctic are already happening at an accelerating rate, meaning significant loss of glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice and permafrost over the next 20 to 30 years.

Narwhal in Nunavut. Changes in Arctic climate change can mean significant consequences for wildlife as well as the people who depend on these animals for food. (Eric Baccega/WWF)

What's more alarming is that these changes will continue beyond 2050, the paper notes.

"This is not just an abstract contemplation," says Schlosser.

He points to global sea level rise, increase in greenhouse gas levels, changes to ocean circulation and mid-latitude weather, already being observed. 

Which Arctic do we want?

The study suggests that some groups are welcoming opportunities that come with the opening of waterways and melting of permafrost for shipping, oil and gas and mineral extraction.

But that's not the case across the board. 

Alaska's Vera Metcalf from the Eskimo Walrus Commission says for Indigenous communities the answer is clear.

'We want the Arctic to remain a very healthy environment with healthy people and communities,' says Vera Metcalf from the Eskimo Walrus Commission. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"We want the Arctic to remain a very healthy environment with healthy people and communities," says Metcalf, adding that the impact of climate change is already being seen and felt in Alaska.

New species have appeared and migration patterns for others have changed, she says.

Irregular weather has made hunting and travelling on sea ice unsafe and inaccessible at times, cutting off routes to traditional food supplies.

Caribou migrating across the tundra in Hudson Bay. Vera Metcalf says climate change has altered the migration patterns of some animals in the Arctic. (Cherry Alexander/WWF)

Some people have suggested that the best way to cope with these changes is to relocate communities like Metcalf's from their traditional lands.

"We are not leaving our homes," says Metcalf. "To me that's unimaginable."

A plan is needed

Without a strategy there is no way to implement effective adaptation and mitigation plans, says Schlosser.

The recommendations in the sudy includes a call for global action in the area of new green energy systems. (Justin Bulota/Tugliq Energy)

The group is offering a set of recommendations calling for global action on new green energy systems.

Schlosser says a new Arctic strategy needs increased investment in research, as well as more technical and financial support for communities struggling to adapt to climate change.

The scientists would also like to see improved observation systems that can detect environmental changes much earlier.


Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.