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Into the blue – a snapshot of the Arctic Resilience Report

Date published
24 November 2016

Change has become the norm in the arctic

The fact that Arctic is changing very fast is well known: the shrinking and thinning sea ice, the condition of the Greenland ice sheet, unusually warm temperatures are all widely reported – as are the opening of new shipping routes and resource extraction. Also reported, if less prominently, are the stories of Indigenous Peoples whose livelihoods are disappearing, or whose lands are becoming uninhabitable.

Yet almost all of these stories told about the region touch upon only one aspect of Arctic change at a time; very few capture the big picture. The reality is that changes across the Arctic are closely interconnected. These changes – many of them driven by processes happening outside of the region – cascade across the geophysical, ecological and human elements of socio-ecological systems. The Arctic Resilience Report, released in November 2016, is the first comprehensive assessment of the region from a combined social and ecological perspective.


Photo by Destination Arctic Circle, Flickr.

Resilience is the capacity to buffer and adapt to stress and shocks, and thus navigate and shape change.

Two scientists study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems

Two scientists study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. Photo by Kathryn Hansen, NASA.

The land is now a stranger
Frank Analok, Nunavut Elder

Regime shifts

Scientists who worked on the Arctic Resilience Report observed large, persistent, often abrupt changes in the Arctic’s natural systems – so-called regime shifts. These shifts are having large impacts on wildlife, the stability of the climate, and on Arctic peoples’ sense of place and well-being. The 19 regime shifts identified in the report take many forms, including:

  • Loss of Arctic sea ice
  • Collapse of the Greenland ice sheet
  • Ocean hypoxia
  • Collapse of fisheries
  • Transformation of landscapes: from bogs to peatlands; from tundra to boreal forest or steppe
  • Shifting river channels.

All of the Arctic countries are vulnerable to 10 or more regime shifts, and the biggest – Russia, the USA and Canada – are each exposed to 18. Most of the regime shifts are neither widely known nor well understood, and far more research is needed.

What is clear is that the biggest driver behind these shifts is human-induced climate change; reducing the risks depends on global action. It is also in the global interest, as the Arctic plays a crucial role in regulating the planet’s climate.

The drama of change

Just as Arctic nature is changing, so are Arctic societies. New livelihoods are emerging, while others fade. There are new forms of Arctic governance. New communications technologies, and new connections outside the region, are also transforming life in the Arctic.

The decisions of Arctic peoples themselves are clearly central to these societal changes. But the context in which they are made is strongly influenced by the legacies of European and North American exploration, territorial expansion and colonialism, and by the dynamics of global financial markets, trade, and demand for minerals, energy, and novel cultural experiences.

Canadian Coast Guard Ship ties up to the Coast Guard Cutter

Photo by Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard, US Geological Survey.

Responding to change

Resilience has always been crucial for people living in the Arctic – and it is even more so given the rapid changes taking place today. The Arctic Resilience Report team studied how 25 communities across the region are responding to this change, and found how some have transformed the way they live and interact with nature and natural resources.

One example is the Inuit of Cape Dorset, in Nunavut, Canada. Formerly nomadic hunters, they have become internationally recognized artists. Another is the fishing community of Húsavík, on Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay, which has turned itself into a tourist destination for whale-watching after cod-fishing quotas and a moratorium on whaling ended their traditional livelihoods.

Village on the Greenland shore

Village on the Greenland shore. Photo by Mads Pihl / Destination Arctic Circle, Flickr.

Comparing the cases revealed four key factors that helped the most successful communities to be resilient:

  1. Capacity for self-organization – that is, to make decisions and implement responses to change
  2. Diversity of responses to change
  3. Capacity to learn from and integrate diverse types of knowledge
  4. Capacity to navigate uncertainty and surprises.

The capacity for self-organization is particularly crucial. Resilient communities can come together to identify and respond to challenges, and can resolve its conflicts and disagreements. Maintaining “social memory” and being able to learn from crises were also found to be very important.

Man carving

Man carving. Photo by Mads Pihl, Destination Arctic Circle.

Cultivating resilience

Resilience can be cultivated and strengthened. The key components of resilience can be thought of as complementary bundles of resources: natural capital, social capital, human capital, infrastructure, financial capital, knowledge assets and cultural capital.

For example, a community looking to adapt to change by developing tourism might draw on natural capital (wildlife, landscape), cultural capital (Indigenous Peoples’ culture and art), financial capital (money for renovations and for better quality of life), infrastructure (e.g. roads, a port), and social capital (connections within the community and with outsiders who can help attract tourists).

Reindeer racing at the annual Sami Week in Tromsø, Norway
Sami & other Arctic Indigenous Peoples have deep knowledge, essential for the chnage in the Arctic

But while these “capitals” are important preconditions for cultivating Arctic resilience, they are not enough. Also needed are enabling institutions and a social and environmental space that allows for flexibility to respond, and these are no longer guaranteed. For instance, reindeer herders have traditionally migrated when grazing conditions in any one place became unfavourable. Government policies and industrial development now often restrict their mobility, meaning that herders have less capacity to adapt.

Reindeer herding

Many practices of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic, such as reindeer herding, are centuries old. Photo by Mats Andersson, Flickr.

In the Arctic, like anywhere else, people act as individuals, as communities, and through institutions. Institutions play a key role in gathering diverse communities to make decisions and plans for their common futures. They help define common policy problems, assemble knowledge, create shared rules and norms, and mobilize resources.

The intergovernmental Arctic Council plays an increasingly important role in Arctic governance. By bringing together the perspectives of regional governments, Indigenous Peoples and other inhabitants, the Arctic Council can support the development of more integrated – and more effective – strategies to address trade-offs and, where possible, find synergies between different interests and development imperatives.

Ultimately, achieving resilience in the Arctic will depend on empowering the people of the North to self-organize, to define challenges in their own terms, and to find their own solutions, knowing that they have the flexibility and the support to implement them.

Inuits use kayaks for travelling & hunting in the Arctic seascape

This Arctic Resilience Final Report is the concluding scientific product of the Arctic Resilience Assessment, a project launched by the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

The report was released on November 25, 2016

Footnotes: Cover Photo by Lawrence Hislop, Grid Arendal Photo Library

© 2018 Stockholm Environment Institute