Floating sea ice in August in Disko Bay, Greenland
Floating sea ice in August in Disko Bay, Greenland. Twiga 269 / Flickr

Twenty years ago in Ottawa, the Arctic Council was established as a high-level intergovernmental forum to enhance cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the active involvement of Indigenous Peoples, to address issues of common concern.

This week, fresh from celebrating the Arctic Council’s 20th anniversary, senior officials from the Council’s eight member States and six indigenous Permanent Participant organizations met in Portland, Maine, to take stock of their ongoing efforts and plan for the future.

The Swedish delegation included SEI Senior Research Fellow Marcus Carson and SEI Executive Director Johan L. Kuylenstierna, who presented key findings from a major project led by SEI and the Stockholm Resilience Centre: the Arctic Resilience Report (ARR).

Johan Kuylenstierna addresses the SAO in Portland.
Johan Kuylenstierna addresses the SAO in Portland.

Launched during the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2011–2013), the ARR is a major collaborative effort to assess the changes taking place in the Arctic, as well as ecosystems’ and societies’ ability to cope with and adapt to those changes. An interim report was published in 2013; the second, final report will be released in Stockholm on 25 November.

The forthcoming report shows that although change is the norm in the Arctic, environmental, ecological, and social changes are now moving faster than ever, are more extreme than ever, and are accelerating. Some changes are gradual, but others, such as the collapse of ice sheets, may prove to be not only abrupt, but also irreversible, with serious global implications.

“One of the most powerful elements of the ARR is that it has involved close collaboration not only among different scientific disciplines, but also close interaction with policy-makers,” said Carson, who has led the project. “Collaborations like this take real work, but the benefit is that we know this report will make an impact, and its recommendations are better and likelier to be implemented.”

Andres Jato, Sweden’s Senior Arctic Official, noted that “moving from science to concrete action is one of Sweden’s top priorities in its Arctic Council work, and we want to ensure that new knowledge really makes a difference.”

ARR Co-Chair Joel Clement, of the U.S. Department of the Interior, echoed that sentiment: “It’s essential for us to have solid science underpinning our policy development. The great teamwork we’ve had between scientists and those of us working on the policy side is helping to guarantee we not only have an excellent scientific report, but also a solid action plan that can strengthen resilience in the Arctic in very practical ways,” he said.

A Sámi reindeer herder in Finnmark, Norway.
A Sámi reindeer herder in Finnmark, Norway. Larry Lamsa / Flickr


Along with the ARR presentation, meeting delegates heard updates from the Council’s Working Groups, Task Forces, and others on a number of key initiatives, including black carbon and methane mitigation, Arctic resilience, and planning for Arctic events at the upcoming Marrakech Climate Change Conference. The group also undertook a wide-ranging discussion of the Council’s present and future work on climate change, and addressed several initiatives to strengthen the Council, including strengthening the capacity of the Permanent Participant organizations.

“This week’s meeting in Portland underscored the Council’s cooperative spirit and the urgency of the tasks at hand,” said Ambassador David Balton, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials. “The effects of climate change are revealing themselves faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, so the Council’s ground-breaking work to advance knowledge and prepare for the future is critical to helping Arctic communities build resilience in the face of these rapid changes.”

Reflecting on the outcomes of the meeting, Kuylenstierna said he sees a growing sense of urgency about the pace and extent of Arctic change. “Some countries, particularly Sweden, want to see that urgency reflected in new efforts through the Arctic Council,” he said, “and they also want to see the Council play a stronger role in global processes related to climate and sustainable development.”

Still, Carson noted, there are competing priorities within the countries, as well as limited resources. “That means that efforts to set actions in motion may sometimes be delayed,” he said. “The Arctic Council Secretariat, for instance, is only 13 people. So the challenges are immense, but this has not yet fully translated into more resources.”

Along with presenting the ARR key findings, Carson and Kuylenstierna discussed plans for a new project after the ARR, focused on wetlands in the Arctic region. They also seized the opportunity to hear firsthand from policy-makers about their concerns and goals.

“Bridging science and policy is a collaborative process,” Carson said. “We need to understand what recommendations are likely to be embraced and which are not, and get a more complete picture of the nature of the challenges. Ultimately, if we want to make a difference, we need to encompass some of the good work already being done, and build on ideas that can be implemented and scaled up.”

Learn more about the Arctic Resilience Report »

See a press release on the Arctic Council meeting »

A view of the ice last March in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of the U.S.
A view of the ice last March in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of the U.S. Kseniia Iartceva, Arctic Council Secretariat / Flickr