Can the world find a realistic way to deal with changing conditions at the ends of the Earth?
FRISCO — Climate scientists and policy makers from around the world last month agreed on an international action plan to help minimize the risks — and identify opportunities — associated with rapid changes in the Arctic and Antarctic environments.
The agreement came at a mid-July conference, when stakeholders from around the world finalized plans for the Polar Prediction Project, which aims to accelerate and consolidate research, observing, modelling, verification and educational activities.
With the Arctic warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world, there is growing interest in the polar regions, where changes will affect the rest of the world.
“Advances in Polar prediction will lead to improvements in weather forecasts, climate predictions and, ultimately, better services for those who live and work in these higher latitudes as well as those living in the lower-latitude regions,” World Meteorological Organization President David Grimes said in a press release announcing the agreement.
Polar regions which were previously difficult to access are now opening up to economic, transportation and tourism activities. This is leading to more demands for better information. But up to now, lack of observations and scientific understanding has made weather, water, ocean, wave and sea ice forecasting very challenging.
“Climate change comes with opportunities, such as reduced maritime transport time from Europe to Asia, and risks such as oil spills and ship accidents. We need improved predictive capacity to manage both the opportunities and the risks,” said Thomas Jung, of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz-Centre for Polar and Marine Research, and chair of the Polar Prediction Project steering committee.
The conference, at WMO headquarters in Geneva, heard about the utmost importance of reliable weather and ice reporting services at daily, monthly and seasonal timescales for shipping.
Shipping container traffic through the Arctic by 2050 may be as big as global container traffic today, according to Tero Vauraste, Chief Executive Officer of the Arctic Shipping Ltd and vice chair of the Arctic Economic Council. Decadal predictions are therefore needed for ship design and fleet planning purposes, he said.
Potential economic benefits come at a price – and not just the negative implications of climate change for global society. An increase in Arctic shipping might result in more oil spills.
“A large spill in the Arctic would present a massive challenge,” said Petter Meier, deputy director general of Norway’s Ministry of Transport and Communications.
“None of the Arctic states currently have the capacity to respond to an oil spill. If we pool our resources, we would be better placed to cope. We need effective preventive measures because we simply can not afford to jeopardize the marine environment,” said Meier.
The toxic effects of Arctic oil spills may last longer because there are fewer organisms to break down the oil, Meier said, citing the remoteness of the area, as well as short daylight hours for much of the year as additional concerns.
More accurate weather forecasts and predictions are also needed in Antarctica to provide better logistical support for research activities and tourism (more than 44,000 visits in 2014-2015). It costs about $100,000 if a flight from New Zealand to the McMurdo Research Station has to turn around because poor weather at McMurdo.
The Geneva meeting agreed on a number of actions for the Year of Polar Prediction, including:
- Top observation and research priorities.
- Stakeholder needs and expectations.
- Promising commitments of financing, equipment, expertise and logistics
- Data management and exchange
- Coordination of planned activities.
The outcomes will be used to revise and finalize the implementation plan for the Year of Polar Prediction, which will build on the legacy of a broader International Polar Year in 2007-2008.
The Polar Prediction Project is driven by WMO’s World Weather Research Programme. Its international coordination office is hosted by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany.