Arctic Forum Targets Challenges, Opportunities of Polar Changes


Nowhere is the power of climate change as evident as the Arctic. The significance and extent of the ongoing transformation is difficult to overstate. As the polar ice melts, new challenges and opportunities are emerging. The world is facing questions it’s never had to answer before.

That is why we formed the Center for Venture Research on the Opening Arctic Ocean, and it is why representatives of concerned nations and indigenous communities formed the Arctic Council. This intergovernmental group met in Portland this October, providing us an opportunity to engage Arctic leaders with our unique perspective on the changes and challenges in the Arctic.

“The Arctic is changing rapidly, and that doesn’t just affect the polar bears,” said Christoph Aeppli, senior research scientist and director of the Center. “The lowest level of the food chain is also changing, and it’s fundamentally affecting everything else. If we don’t understand what’s happening at the microbial level, we’re going to have a very hard time anticipating changes in the Arctic Ocean.”

Bigelow Laboratory scientists delivered this message during the weeklong meeting through public presentations and personal conversations. Aeppli participated in a panel discussion on industry and research collaboration in the Arctic. He also moderated a panel on marine pollution and fisheries management in the Bering Strait during a workshop for the US and Russian coast guards. Senior Research Scientist Paty Matrai served on panels discussing phytoplankton changes and technology challenges in the Arctic. Senior Research Scientist Nick Record presented on the connectivity between the Gulf of Maine and the Arctic.

Some of the most important developments were the relationships that were built or strengthened with individual policymakers, Arctic researchers, and industry representatives. Our meetings with key government officials included substantive conversations with Senator Angus King, Representative Chellie Pingree, and US Ambassador David Balton, who is currently Chair of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials. Our scientists also engaged with two Arctic Council working groups, which are primary means by which the council gathers information and generates policy recommendations.

“What’s happening in the Arctic isn’t just going to stay there. It’s going to impact our lives, our politics, and our economies,” said Beth Orcutt, senior research scientist. “The presentations and conversations at this meeting really highlighted the urgent need for data and adaptation strategies from Arctic research.”

One clear acknowledgment of the imperative need for research was the treaty that emerged at the end of the meeting. Scheduled to be signed this spring, the treaty is designed to empower greater scientific cooperation between Arctic nations. Research can suffer greatly when international restrictions prevent scientists from accessing territories or data.

“The treaty will be invaluable,” Matrai said. “It will save us time, yes, but it will give us all access to data, including historical data that we couldn’t collect now, that we absolutely do not have but we absolutely need.”

The outcomes of the Arctic Council meeting are internationally significant, but they also mark a milestone for Bigelow Laboratory. We have been working hard during the last year to develop and refine our Center for Venture Research on the Opening Arctic Ocean ahead of this meeting. While we’ve been conducting research in the Arctic for decades, the Center represents a new commitment to getting our science out of the lab and into use by the governments and communities that need it. The Arctic Council meeting gave us the opportunity to validate our approach and define our next steps alongside some of the world’s Arctic leaders.

“People know the Arctic is warming. People know the ice is melting. What they’re asking now is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” Aeppli said. “We need to continue studying how the Arctic system works, but there’s also a real need for our science to help people forecast and adapt to the changes.”