Plugging Critical Gaps In The Understanding Of Arctic Marine Biodiversity And Climate Feedbacks

by Sabrina Heerema | Published: 30-Sep-22 | Last updated: 27-Sep-22 | Tags : Arctic Greenland IPCC research webinar | category: NEWS

Attended by 70 online participants and moderated by Björn Alfthan (GRID-Arendal), the webinar included a large number of insights into the current state of knowledge of Arctic marine biodiversity, feedback mechanisms to the global climate, and the main gaps existing within the current IPCC reports.

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The Keynote reveals the IPCC currently says very little about the Arctic Ocean

Katherine Richardson Christiansen (University of Copenhagen), in her keynote presentation, pointed out that the IPCC report does not actually say a lot about the Arctic Ocean. She noted the current “dogma” and one repeated in the IPCC report that primary production (the rate at which carbon dioxide is converted by marine microorganisms to organic material, through photosynthesis) will decrease due to climate change, however she noted:

 “IPCC is not even confident in the direction of change in primary production”.

Katherine went on to explain why Global Circulation Models (GCM) are so uncertain for predictions, because they lack a mechanistic description of interactions. GCMs assume that increased stratification will dampen vertical mixing, which in turn will decrease primary production. However, Katherine pointed out that the current empirical data doesn’t support intensification of stratification, noting instead that it is the depth of the nitricline is the most important factor driving changes in primary productivity.

Talking about the biological pump, Katherine noted that given the huge diversity of phytoplankton organisms, a much better understanding of this group of organisms is needed to determine carbon flows and to improve GCMs. 

Lightning talks highlight progress in the fields of key drivers, the biological pump and marine tipping points, and adaptation in Arctic coastal fisheries

In the first lightning talk of the webinar, Robert Schleigel (Institut de la Mer de Villefranche), a FACE-IT data scientist/researcher, talked about what the primary drivers of change in Arctic fjords are and how much is known about each driver. 

Robert and his team have categorised fjord socio-economic systems into 5 components: Cryosphere, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Social, each of which has a few key drivers of change. The main drivers of cryospheric change, for example, are sea ice, glacial mass balance, and glacial and river discharge.

Robert and his team’s analysis pointed out that in fact it was the physical drivers of change, which include seawater temperature, salinity and light, which are comparatively the most studied.

Robert ended his intervention with a thought-provoking message, emphasising that as the planet warms, the cryosphere will melt, meaning one of the five main categories will be removed:

 “If there isn’t a cryosphere, is it still the Arctic?”

Marja Koski (DTU Aqua), coordinator of the ECOTIP project, gave a presentation about the biological pump. The IPCC has low confidence and great uncertainty about the status of biological pump. The latest IPCC report in fact only mentions it five times. She explained that the efficiency of the biological pump depends on 4 things: Aggregate production, active carbon transport, aggregate sinking, and aggregate degradation. In her opinion, an incomplete understanding of zooplankton processes and the community composition of zooplankton is hampering advances in models of the biological pump. She ended her talk by noting that the traits-based and Bayesian approaches being undertaken in projects like ECOTIP are helping to fill existing knowledge gaps.

Brian Mackenzie (DTU Aqua) presented some of the latest findings from his research, which focusses on tipping points and cascades  in the Southeast of Greenland. The area of study is one of the only to offer a long-term time series of sea ice conditions, dating from 1820 onwards until present day. Brian and his collaborators have found that as coastal sea ice has decreased – resulting in an almost permanent absence over the last 10-20 years, both fish and marine mammals communities are changing.

“This is unique in a 200 year period and extreme – there has been no other such long event.”

He noted that cold adapted species, such as Narwhals and walrus, are becoming rarer, with warm adapted species, including fin and humpback whales, becoming more common. His team has also estimated that fin and humpback whales consume 1 million tonnes of food/year, in this region, which is resulting in impacts across the food web. 

In the final lightning talk, Grete Hovelsrud (Nordland Research Institute) spoke about how Arctic fisheries are having to evolve and adapt in a changing climate. She noted that 15 years ago, a northward shift of commercial fish species was expected, and this has indeed happened, including a change in species and an increase in abundance. Yet along with this change in fish species, life in coastal fishing communities has also changed. She gave the example of Lofoten, northern Norway, where the climate is no longer ideally suited for drying cod:

“Lofoten is no longer the ideal drying place, coastal communities are doubly vulnerable to climate change.”

Reduced sea ice in Greenland has also had profound effects on fishing for Greenland halibut.  Traditionally a small-scale activity that takes place by running a line down to the sea bottom through sea ice, this is no longer viable due to the lack of sea ice. While local fishermen have adapted by fishing by boat, there are also new and larger commercial actors moving in, changing the governance regime.

“This is a Pandora’s box for Arctic governance, because reduced sea increases human activities in the Arctic.”

Grete ended her talk by noting that projects like FACE-IT are identifying adaptive co-management strategies to address these emerging governance challenges.

Panel discussion: the science-policy interface is essential and active

The second half of the webinar was dedicated to a panel discussion, moderated by Grete and including the following panellists: Larisa Lorinczi (EU Commission), Marianne Kroglund (Norwegian Environment Agency) and Dieter Piepenburg (Alfred Wegener Institute).

Grete opened by the panel by asking Dieter what the best avenues are for getting research into the IPCC. Dieter laid out the key areas of engaging with the IPCC, which include: publishing peer-reviewed papers, reviewing, being nominated as a lead or contributing author. He also mentioned the issue of “paper cut-off dates”, saying that the IPCC is aware of this time lag and the relatively large number of years between the main assessments (7 years). He noted the use of “Special Reports” which provide a quicker turnaround.

Larisa was asked about the new EU missions and to what extent these new initiatives draw on the findings of the IPCC. Larisa started by explaining that the EU missions, including Mission Ocean, is a tool to support the EU Green Deal. She emphasised that the EU Missions are functioning at a higher technology readiness level (TRL) – in other words, rolling out practical solutions and technologies - than projects like ECOTIP and FACE-IT, which are functioning at lower TRLs and focus on research. She emphasised the importance of all EU science projects to develop high-impact scientific research that can feed into the IPCC process, and other important processes, such as the Global joint assessment being developed by the IPCC and IPBES – all global assessment processes followed closely and used by the EU Commission. She finished her comments by noting the importance of the EU Polar Cluster, and policy events in Brussels, as means to get policy-relevant messages through to decision-makers.

Asked about how the results of the IPCC are integrated into Norway’s government and respective agencies, Marianne noted the Norwegian Environment Agency is the focal point for the IPCC, following the process from the scoping phases, through to reviewing and governmental approval, to mainstreaming into Norway’s government. She emphasised the crucial importance of assessments like the IPCC and other global assessments, noting that it would be impossible to follow and make sense of all the individual research taking place. Asked whether there was a gap between science and policy making, she noted that some responsibility should be taken by the policy side, making it clearer what their information needs are towards scientists. Asked about the work of the Arctic Council and how this links to the IPCC, Marianne noted that the Council’s work on climate change, published through peer-review assessments under the AMAP working group, has been crucial to bring forward the Arctic perspective in IPCC reports. She also highlighted a number of ongoing projects under the Council, including the ongoing (but currently paused) joint AMAP/CAFF project Climate change impacts on Arctic ecosystems and associated climate feedbacks.

Björn closed the webinar by mentioning that the three EU Horizon 2020-funded projects funded under the same call on Arctic biodiversity (i.e. ECOTIP, FACE-IT and CHARTER) are planning a policy event in Brussels in early to mid 2023 to bring forward policy messages to relevant persons and functions within the EU Commission.