New Alarming Report on the State of the Arctic

This Tuesday, on December 11, 2018, at the same time that the 11iceCOP24 is about to conclude in Katowice, Poland, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) released its annual international Arctic report card (the “Report”) reflecting on a range of land, ice, and ocean observations made throughout the Arctic during the 2018 calendar year. The Report includes a series of 14 essays prepared by more than 80 scientists from 12 countries and it underlines the changes that are continuing to occur in the Arctic environmental system in relation with climate change.

As the Report shows and as reported by the media, “the Arctic is experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history”.

It is underlined that, in 2018, surface air temperatures in the Arctic continued to warm at roughly twice the rate compared to the rest of the world. It is also noted that the year 2018 was the second warmest year on record in the Arctic since 1900 (after 2016) and that Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

The Report further indicates that such continued warming of the Arctic in 2018 is an indicator of both regional and global climate change and a driver of broad Arctic environmental change. Scientists explains that atmospheric warming continued to drive broad, long-term trends in declining terrestrial snow cover, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and lake ice, increasing summertime Arctic river discharge, and the expansion and greening of Arctic tundra vegetation. Despite the growth of vegetation available for grazing land animals, herd populations of caribou and wild reindeer across the Arctic tundra have declined by nearly 50% over the last two decades.

895ARC18_Landfast_mahoney_Fig3According to the Report, the Arctic is no longer returning to the extensively frozen region of recent past decades—in 2018 Arctic sea ice remained thinner and covered less area than in the past. Also, Warming Arctic Ocean conditions are coinciding with an expansion of harmful algae species responsible for toxic algal blooms (which have been found in the tissues of Arctic clams, seals, walrus, and whales and other marine organisms).952ARC18_HABs_anderson_Fig2

NOAA concludes that “new and rapidly emerging threats are taking form and highlighting the level of uncertainty in the breadth of environmental change that is to come”.

We are working on it!

Island in the oceanAttending COP23 as an observer is a privilege because you are able to attend international multilateral negotiations. You witness established alliances use their power as a block and observe the dynamics of side negotiations. In these international multilateral negotiations, delegates agonize over words and paragraphs. They set their lines in the sand early and often. All of it done with diplomatic speak and collegiality but sometimes some get close to stepping over the line. Most of all, it is a privilege because you get to see the world trying to solve a problem collectively. With all this privilege, there is no denying that at times, these negotiations are frustrating. On rare occasions, the frustration causes one to think that the process is not working.

In a conversation with a delegate, I asked whether he is experiencing such frustration. Stalled talks are particularly challenging for him because he is from a Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which the United Nations considers as vulnerable nations because of climate change effect.  SIDS are usually located in the paths of hurricanes, which are happening with more frequency and more force. In the summer of 2017, for the first time, this delegate’s country issued mandatory evacuations from one of the outlying islands because no available shelter was adequate against the wrath of the coming storm. In the aftermath, the island became uninhabitable.

Additionally, SIDS are very vulnerable to rising sea levels. If water levels continue to rise, the oceans will soon reclaim these islands. Their challenge is their reluctance to make these issues public. Because their economy is dependent on tourism, climate change effects will drive off tourists, which will hurt an already fragile economy.

To answer my question, the delegate simply smiled. Then he started looking around at the other delegates and asked how many countries are represented. I told him there are delegates from 170 countries. He asked what are they all doing here? I told him that they are working on climate change issues. He replied with an even bigger smile, “exactly!” and repeated shortly after– We are working on it.

It is true that the COP process is complicated. One is instantly overwhelmed by the structure. There are three processes contained within the COP (UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreement). Furthermore, each convention, protocol, or agreement has its own framework, and they sometimes intersect with each other. Having said that, the complexity of the process really lies in the magnitude of participants. At last count, there are one hundred and seventy countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement. These countries represent different needs, levels of development, levels of ability, and a different sense of urgency. Even with the common shared goal of limiting the increase in the Planet’s average temperature, the complexity is how to arrive at the desired results. In other words, who does what and who pays for what is the main source of difficulty at the COP negotiations, but…..

We are working on it!


Negotiation agenda

Saying Goodbye to Cultural Landmarks

Sea-level rise is an unavoidable threat facing our planet in the coming century. Even avoiding increasing global temperatures above 2°C likely wont save us from a twenty-foot rise in sea-level by 2020. This kind of devastating sea-level rise will have disastrous effects on worldwide economies, agricultural, and livelihoods. It will also irreparably change the face of some of the world’s most treasured landmarks.


Historical treasures the world over may be threatened, even if we stay within the 2°C target limit agreed on in Cancun. Further, a recently released study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if we don’t hit this target limit, a global temperature warming of 4°C could cause anywhere from 22.6 to 35.4 feet of global sea-level rise.

So what does this mean for coastal communities, and the many global icons located there?

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists last year outlined thirty national landmarks across the United States that could be lost or severely damaged from the effects of climate change. Among those monuments was Faneuil Hall in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty Planned the Boston Tea Party. Also included were the U.S. Naval Academy, the Kennedy Space Center, Jamestown, NASA’s Langley Research Center, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. Around the country 118 national parks are considered to be at risk. Additionally, the U.S Interior Department released a report in June that revealed sea-level rise from climate change will damage the national park infrastructure and historic and cultural resources totaling in over $40 billion. And that’s just in the United States.

Climate change has the potential to cause rises in sea-level that may submerge areas currently home to between 470 and 760 million people on six different continents. Climate Central recently compiled a series of photographs that depict what sea-level rise will look like in cities such as Mumbai, Sydney, Shanghai, Rio, New York, Durban, London, and D.C. These cities are all major cultural and economic hubs for their respective countries, and any damage to them will likely also damage their countries as a whole.

In the battle against climate change, sea-level rise represents more than just economic losses. It means significant losses to culture, history, and livelihoods- not to mention lives. A study published in Environmental Research Letters found that 136 UNESCO World Heritage Sites will disappear with a warming of 5.4°C, warming that falls within projected ranges from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea-level rise may force us to say goodbye to cultural treasures such as Japan’s Itsukushima Shrine, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, Venice, Chile’s Rapa Nui National Park, and countless others. Further,
for cities such as Miami and New Orleans, its not a question of if they will be underwater, but when.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 1.17.10 PM

For those cultural icons that are still salvageable, it is imperative that we reach an ambitious binding goal for limiting global temperature increases. After all, we can certainly survive without some of these historical landmarks, but why would we want to?

Images Courtesy of Climate Central. 

Food Security Will Require Collaboration (not just a combination of raspberry and chocolate)

bandj un SOS“If it’s melted, it’s ruined”; raising awareness for climate change by raising a cool spoonful of a creamy treat. That’s a tall order for Ben and Jerry’s new flavor of ice cream “Save Our Swirled”, which they revealed at the UN climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany in early September.  While admirable, and admittedly every bit of positive publicity helps, it ironically belies one of the most serious consequences of climate change – food insecurity for a vast proportion of the world’s population. Acknowledging the critical nature of nutrition to our survival and our absolute dependence upon climate for food production, the UNFCCC established as its objective under Article 2  to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system …. to ensure that food production is not threatened.”

Test your knowledge about the Sustainable Development Goals  - Take the QUIZ :

Test your knowledge about the Sustainable Development Goals – Take the QUIZ.

But a luscious creamery and the UN Executive Secretary aren’t the only significant combination of interests that are going to need to join forces in order to  satisfy the mandate set forth in The Rio+20 Declaration and Working Group that prepared the Sustainable Development Goals and the outcome document “The Future We Want”. [Note that food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture are particularly addressed in paragraphs 108-118.]    It is the culmination of those efforts that have just been adopted by the UN’s  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development  in New York this weekend (September 25-27). It calls for all countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, to  implement this plan in an integrated,  swirled up way; well, the UN officially used the term “indivisible” in paragraph 18.  While Sustainable Development Goal 2.4 links food security to climate change by requiring that by 2030 countries have sustainable food production systems and resilient agricultural practices in place that will strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, the FAO notes well that “issues related to food and agriculture are comprehensively integrated among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”  All the ingredients exist in the various SDGs to discover a success recipe for food security.

“If it’s melted, it’s ruined”. Most often people think about sea level rise or glacial melt when thinking about climate change, but forget about the devastating effects on fisheries. The newly released World Wildlife Fund report indicates that species like tuna, mackerel and bonito may have declined as much as 74% in the last 40 years. Climate change has profound effects on the health of marine food production which can be the mainstay of food security for some populations.  SDG 14 addresses the need to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”.  Melting polar ice and sea level rise can also affect coastal and low-lying field arability. For rice paddies, a global staple, this will have devastating effects. The world’s food supply is in dire straits with the poorest countries to be hit hardest and soonest. That is the point underscored by the UN Sustainable Development Agenda. All countries and all peoples have a right to food security in order to achieve their full potential.

Perhaps what Ben & Jerry’s newest ice cream flavor teaches us most about climate change and food security is that it will take a mixed balance of many factors to find the proper combination to get the solution right. It wasn’t a straight-forward “vanilla” response from thun 4e ice-cream company[i], and so the response for food insecurity will also have to be a multidimensional one. SDG 2 is a broad call to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, but it will will require contributions from a variety of sectors to achieve that goal.  Perhaps we need to think in terms of “Common but Differentiated Vulnerabilities” with regard to food insecurity. This appears to be the approach taken by the Global Policy Report: “Where Rain Falls: Climate Change, Food and Livelihood Security, and Migration”.  Populations can make “informed, resilience-enhancing decisions” if they are supported by sustainable policies that are adaptable to the local situation. At a time when humanity is facing a migrant / refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions, we cannot allow an exacerbation of the problem due to climate change food insecurity issues. We must address the agricultural adaption strategies where possible to ease the dramatic impacts to attempt to preserve livelihoods.




[i] Indeed it was a Raspberry Ice Cream with Marshmallow & Raspberry Swirls & Dark & White Fudge Ice Cream Cones response! []

Greenland Ice Melt

New research published in Nature Climate Change this week points to increased melting of the ice sheet that currently covers Greenland and thus a greater factor in sea-level rise.  According to its summary:

“The Greenland ice sheet has been one of the largest contributors to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 mm yr−1 of a total of 3.2 mm yr−1. A significant portion of this contribution is associated with the speed-up of an increased number of glaciers in southeast and northwest Greenland. Here, we show that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability. This sector of the Greenland ice sheet is of particular interest, because the drainage basin area covers 16% of the ice sheet (twice that of Jakobshavn Isbræ) and numerical model predictions suggest no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to an under-estimation of future global sea-level rise. The geometry of the bedrock and monotonic trend in glacier speed-up and mass loss suggests that dynamic drawdown of ice in this region will continue in the near future.” (emphasis added)


According to one news report, the northeast region of Greenland’s ice sheet retreated 12.4 miles between 2003 and 2012 after a period of particularly high temperatures.  This resulted in 10 billion tons of water added to the ocean each year of that nine-year span.  Greenland contributes approximately .012 to .13 inches annually to sea-level rise, accounting for almost one-sixth of annual sea-level rise.