The Arctic is in the spotlight like never before. Large oil and mineral reserves attract attention; shipping companies are exploiting new routes; while governments are looking for ways to both encourage and regulate all the new activity.

Then there’s the other story line – that we’re doomed. The sea ice is thinning at an alarming rate, not just threatening polar bear survival, but also changing entire ecosystems and the global climate. Even if we act now, it might be too late.

The good news is there is growing awareness of the challenges. The outlook is indeed troubling, but policy choices that take these risks into account in planning for the future can still make a difference, says Annika E. Nilsson, a senior research fellow at SEI and project leader of the Arctic Resilience Report .

Led by SEI and the Stockholm Resilience Centre and carried out with partners around the region, the Arctic Council project aims to gauge the combined impacts of environmental, social and economic changes in the Arctic; identify critical threshold changes; and support the development of strategies to protect communities and ecosystems.

On the ministers’ agenda
An interim report will be published in May, but insights from the project are already informing policy debates. On 5-6 February , environment ministers from the Arctic countries are meeting in Jukkasjärvi, in the Swedish Arctic, and Johan Rockström, chair of the Project Steering Committee of the Arctic Resilience Report, will address the group. SEI Executive Director Johan L. Kuylenstierna will moderate a high-level discussion.

“The effects of climate change on the sea ice are transforming the Arctic,” says Nilsson, who wrote a blogpost previewing the meeting for the Swedish Ministry of the Environment. “Until recently the ice, combined with extreme weather, winter darkness and remoteness, limited economic development, but now industrialization is proceeding at a dramatic pace, pushed along also by increasing global resource demand. Such large and rapid changes come with risks of damaging existing livelihoods and unique ecosystems, and they need to be better addressed in public policy.”

The Arctic Council is an important forum to discuss these challenges. Established in 1996, the council includes Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States, plus six Permanent Participants representing indigenous peoples across the Arctic. Sweden is chairing the Council for 2011-2013, and the Arctic Resilience Report is a flagship activity of that chairmanship.

“International cooperation is urgently needed both to slow climate change, and to increase the capacity for adaptation to the rapid environmental and social changes in the Arctic,” Nilsson adds. “The Arctic Resilience Report is not yet complete, but there is much to suggest that the Arctic may has already crossed a threshold into a new climate regime, which will affect not only the region but the entire planet.”

An important role for policy-makers
In this context, Nilsson says, it is important to understand how social and environmental changes interact, and that we have choices to make – not all the changes happening in the Arctic are beyond human control.

“It’s easy to think that climate change is what’s driving the transformation of the Arctic, but it is people who decide how and when to exploit resources and develop the region,” she says. “Some have more power than others, but all will be affected by the choices. The meeting of environment ministers is important because a healthy environment with viable Arctic ecosystems is foundational for many livelihoods, especially for Arctic indigenous peoples.”

Nilsson’s work on the Arctic goes beyond the Arctic Resilience Report. She is also conducting her own research on the politics of Arctic change, including the Mistra-funded project “Assessing Arctic Futures: Voices, Resources and Governance”, and co-editing of an upcoming book with the preliminary title When the ice breaks: Media and the politics of Arctic climate change. She is also a member of the Environmental Advisory Council to the Swedish Minister of the Environment and was featured in a recent podcast (in Swedish).

Learn more about the Arctic Resilience Report »