The United States will begin its leadership of the Arctic Council at an international meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, on Friday, beginning a two-year term in which the State Department has signaled it will focus heavily on climate change.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—who was often the lone member of Congress to attend U.N. climate talks—will assume the chairmanship from Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian environmental minister whose tenure at the council's helm has prioritized economic expansion (ClimateWire, Oct. 20, 2014). The council was created in 1996 as an international body to monitor environmental conditions in the Arctic.

"The threat of climate change is as ominous as ever, its effects are as tangible as ever," Kerry said at an Arctic Council meeting in Sweden in 2013, noting significant common desires among all eight Arctic nations. "This is one of the most obvious shared challenges on the face of the planet today."

Last Friday afternoon, on a conference call hosted by the National Research Council to present a recent report on the Arctic region, Stephanie Pfirman, an environmental science professor at Barnard College, said Arctic ice coverage is shrinking and that thicker sea ice blocks, which anchor much of the landscape, are rapidly melting.

"The Arctic is warming faster than just about any place on Earth," Pfirman said. "And the Arctic winters are much milder than they were in the past."

Describing the albedo effect—the phenomenon that explains how lighter substances reflect sunlight while darker items absorb its heat—she said permafrost thaw is also a growing concern.

"There's about as much carbon in permafrost as there is in coal, oil and natural gas put together," said James White, a geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fires in the planet's northern regions, he said, speed permafrost melt and contribute to the albedo effect by creating dark, exposed stretches of land.

Walruses rely on ice to rest while hunting, Pfirman said. But vanishing ice shelves that walruses use as their hunting grounds are prompting a shift in the animals' movements.

"We're losing sea ice extent," White said, "and the ability of the ice to withstand thermal events."

This year, sea ice in the Arctic reached its smallest maximum extent since satellites began tracking polar ice patterns, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, while scientists have also forecast ice-free Arctic summers in two to three decades (ClimateWire, July 16, 2013).

The Japan Meteorological Agency said Thursday that last month was the warmest March on record, ahead of March 2010, which was an El Niño year (ClimateWire, April 17).

"Scale is an issue here. Speed is an issue," White said. "And inevitability is an issue, too."

Pfirman and White, as well as Julie Brigham-Grette, a professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, repeatedly highlighted how local Arctic developments impact the global community.

Impacts and risks for the whole world
"It's going to affect us down here," White said. "We can, for example, expect a lot more fishing in the open Arctic," which may move food price shocks.

Sea-level rise, changes in the jet stream and different water patterns in the Atlantic Ocean are some global manifestations of climate change, they said.

A warmer Arctic Ocean presents a host of global risks, but some corporations could have a lot to gain.

Shipping companies, sailing through waters with little or no ice, could cut straight across the North Pole. Freighters, tankers and container ships could navigate the Northwest Passage, hugging Canada's northern coast, or travel along Russia's polar shore on the Northern Sea Route, which could cut costs and time for shipments between European and Asian markets.

Ocean cruise companies already offer Arctic voyages and, with more ice-free months, are weighing more trips during formerly frozen-over months.

"Increasingly, people are interested in the transpolar route," said Pfirman, the Barnard professor, adding that tourists are intrigued about far-north vacations, too. "We know we're facing an era of change."

Earlier Friday, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the tone was one of mitigating environmental risks to preserve financial opportunities, rather than studying ecological concerns outright.

"How do we get the word out there for what is really happening?" said Drue Pearce, a policy adviser at Crowell Moring, a law firm, when asked at a CSIS panel how to swing public opinion away from opposing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic region.

"We all have to accept that your risk is never going to be zero," she said of the possibility of a drilling spill. "Clearly, you move public acceptance to move forward."

A report about U.S. oil and gas exploration in the Arctic published last month by the National Petroleum Council found most drilling opportunities under America's jurisdiction are less than 100 meters below the ocean's surface, more shallow-than-standard depths in other drill regions, like the Gulf of Mexico.

Carol Lloyd, engineering vice president at Exxon Mobil Corp., spoke Friday about capping stacks and other containment systems—designed to bottle up blowouts—and said extending the drilling season beyond the roughly 2½ months in the summer would benefit the industry.

"The best way to prevent an oil spill is to design your well really well," Paula Grant, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy's oil and natural gas office, told the CSIS audience.

Pfirman, however, said swirling ice, storms, far-distant ports for emergency help and darkness—which would be pronounced during a longer drilling season—present a serious challenge to Arctic oil cleanup.

"Responding to an oil spill or accident under these extreme conditions is extremely difficult," she said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500