The Arctic is in the spotlight like never before. Scientists and environmentalists watch it as a bellwether of global climate change, while nations and corporations seek to exploit the region's oil, gas and mineral reserves, and new shipping routes. Yet most discussions of the Arctic fail to consider how changes in climate, ecosystems, economics, and society interact.
The Arctic Resilience Report (ARR), led by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), set out to fill that gap. What it found is that the combination of multiple, dramatic changes is pushing social-ecological systems to their limits.
Be prepared for surprises
"The Arctic is changing so fast and in so many interacting ways that it affects the very fabric of ecosystems and societies," says Annika E. Nilsson, senior research fellow at SEI and scientific coordinator of the first phase of the ARR.
"We have to be prepared for surprises, and we need to increase the capacity to adapt and to grapple with conflicting priorities."
Launched in 2011 as a priority of the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the ARR is a collaboration between experts in the Nordic countries, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. representing a range of knowledge traditions including indigenous perspectives.
The 120-page report lays out the ARR's initial findings, including a preliminary assessment of critical thresholds in the Arctic, an analysis of societies' adaptive capacity, and four pilot case studies.
The ARR final report will be released in May 2015.
"Change in the Arctic is taking place with striking breadth and diversity," says Johan Rockström, executive director of SRC and chair of the ARR Steering Committee.
"We need robust options for policy and management, and the first step is to get a more integrated picture of the challenges in the Arctic"
Johan Rockström, chair of the ARR Steering Committee
To achieve this, the ARR team applied a resilience lens, exploring how social and ecological systems are interconnected, identifiying the shocks and stresses they may face, and gauges their ability to recover and, if needed, to adapt or transform.
Viewed through this lens, the Arctic is a web of social and ecological systems that, together, are rapidly changing in multiple ways. The combined effect of those changes increases the risk of crossing thresholds that could abruptly and irreversibly transform Arctic ecosystems, environmental processes, and societies.
"When people talk about global change, they often assume that it will happen fairly steadily, and that people and ecosystems will be able to make step-by-step adjustments over time, but we document a growing body of research that shows this is far from always the case," says Sarah Cornell, lead author of the ARR's thresholds analysis and coordinator of the Planetary Boundaries research initiative at SRC.
"Sometimes very large steps will need to be taken to keep up. And sometimes, changes will be radical," Cornell adds.
"Arctic sea ice is melting faster than global models predict. Ice-free summers could be the case within a few decades. Human interventions are also increasingly changing the landscape. Change this rapid is unprecedented, so we don't fully know what to expect, but the climatic and ecological results will be profound. Not only ecosystems, but communities and industrial infrastructure could be seriously affected."
Driven by global trends
The authors also stress that many changes in the Arctic are driven by global trends, and at the same time, changes in the Arctic could have environmental, economic and social impacts around the globe.
"Responding to these challenges involves grappling with different and sometimes competing priorities," says Annika E. Nilsson.
A major section of the ARR discusses sources of resilience and adaptive capacity in the Arctic, highlighting ways to build on them that would facilitate more flexible and collaborative approaches to Arctic governance that can quickly adjust to new conditions.
"The resilience approach can help us understand the interplay of those priorities, and participatory processes can ensure all voices are heard."
Learn more about the Arctic Resilience Report and download the Interim Report from the Arctic Council website.
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