Arctic & Antarctica
Associated Press/John McConnico

Arctic - Biden and Trudeau need to talk about the Arctic

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada jointly charted a new course for collaborative leadership in the Arctic. With the motivation provided by our shared borders, close economic ties and the common challenges faced by the Indigenous peoples in both countries whose culture and way of life has flourished in this remote part of the world for thousands of years, Canada and the United States have played a pivotal role in promoting solutions to shared challenges in the Arctic.

Now is the time for the two nations to reaffirm their commitment to work together to meet the growing climate-linked challenges in their far North, from intensifying wildfires and thawing permafrost, to plant and animal impacts imperiling Indigenous subsistence and cultures, to a changing Arctic Ocean and all that this entails for the region and the globe.

Fortunately, when President Biden visits Trudeau for two days next week, there should be time for them to discuss not only the currently compelling geopolitical challenges around relations with Russia and China but also what more the United States and Canada can do together to address the slower growing but increasingly critical problems being imposed by climate change on the North American Arctic. A good initial focus for this discussion would be the Central Artic Ocean (CAO), given its high relevance to the interests of both countries and the immense role it plays in impacts of climate change both regionally and globally.

The Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) is more than 1 million square miles of international waters surrounding the North Pole. Its border is formed by the 200 nautical-mile line drawn from the shores of the five Arctic coastal states: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States. For nearly all of the tenure of human beings on this planet, the CAO has been covered with a multi-meter layer of floating sea ice. That has made it the least-studied ocean area on Earth but also one of the most consequential in its influence on the global climate. That influence comes in large part from the sea ice’s high reflectivity, which sends most incoming sunlight back to space, cooling the region and the planet below what temperature would be if the area covered by ice were open water or land instead (which is far less reflective than ice).

The enhancement, by the ice, of the temperature difference between the CAO and the equator also plays a major role in atmospheric circulation and ocean currents in the Northern Hemisphere, further influencing climate in the regions where most of the world’s people live.

The human-caused changes in global climate have hit the Arctic particularly hard, warming it three to four times faster than the global average. Summer sea ice melting has accelerated, refreezing takes place later each year, and sea ice thickness is greatly diminished. This warming has accelerated a cascade of changes and stressors for ocean life in the Arctic, including crashes in fish, marine mammal and seabird populations in some northern seas, as well as in-migration of new species into the Arctic. Indigenous and other coastal communities that have relied on the productivity of the Arctic Ocean are faced with accelerating challenges to food security, increased dangers while pursuing cultural practice, and catastrophic coastal erosion exacerbated by the retreat of the sea ice. As the existing fabric of life in the Arctic frays, there is still inadequate scientific understanding of how the ecosystem will evolve in an increasingly warm and ice-free sea.

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