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“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic”: EAC calls for better focus of Arctic issues in Whitehall and funding boost for research

13 October 2023

Rising sea levels, contributed to by Arctic ice melting, could risk 1.5 million UK properties flooding, with growing evidence suggesting that changes in the Arctic could make weather events in the UK more extreme. However, with much of the Arctic under researched, more information is needed into what a changing Arctic could mean for our way of life.

In its report published today, the Environmental Audit Committee points to research that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the globe. It urges the Government to move the Arctic up the political agenda, be more ambitious in reducing domestic emissions, and lead efforts to champion Arctic science globally.

The evidence is clear: we have less sea ice in every single month now compared to 40 years ago. Ecosystems and habitats are being transformed and enormous disruption is being caused to the 4 million people who live in the Arctic. In the UK, rising sea levels could risk up to 1.5 million properties flooding by 2080, according to the Climate Change Committee, with the Government likely having to choose which areas to protect with flood defences and management, and which can be allowed to flood.

There remain significant gaps in knowledge from Arctic science and research. The UK punches above its weight and produces 10% of the world’s Arctic research papers, but there is the opportunity to do more: from examining the under-researched polar winter to having a stronger operational presence in the Arctic throughout the year.

Access to the Arctic can be treacherous, but the UK’s new ice-strengthened polar research ship, RRS Sir David Attenborough, has the ability to offer research and logistical support while enabling research to predict extreme weather. Other UK ships operating in the region are not ice-strengthened. To demonstrate the UK’s commitment to its responsibilities in the Arctic, the RRS Sir David Attenborough should voyage to the North Pole. Given that she predominantly operates in the Antarctic, the Government should also consider providing an additional ship for UK scientists and researchers in the Arctic.

At present, grants are usually offered for short-term studies, despite the need for long-term data highlighting the changes that are occurring in slower time. Strategic, long-term funding should be secured to support scientific monitoring over periods of at least 10 years, and a dedicated institute should coordinate Arctic research undertaken by UK universities.

International collaboration is critical and the Government should consider investment in an Arctic programme, ahead of the next international polar year in 2032-33, to bring together like-minded nations to move Arctic research up the political agenda. This will be particularly important as the Committee is concerned that the work of the Arctic Council is unlikely to return to normal as before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: since the invasion, 130 research projects have been paused.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has severe impacts for Arctic science: Western scientists have lost data and access to 50% of the Arctic that sits within Russia. 

Aside from science and research, retreating ice and availability of Arctic resources is leading to competition between the West, Russia and China which is heightening geographical tensions. Following Russia’s ‘freezing out’ of Arctic Council activity, it has been working with China in the Russian Arctic on oil and gas extraction. The Committee is concerned that the competition for resources and increased military presence by both Russia and NATO in the Arctic is diverting attention away from climate change in the region.

Domestically, four Ministers from different Government departments share responsibility for Arctic matters presenting a fragmented policy picture. The Committee was alarmed to hear that the four Ministers are yet to meet to discuss Arctic matters – highlighting a potential lack of enthusiasm or capacity – leading the Committee to recommend that they meet at least quarterly. An Envoy to the Arctic should be appointed to bring together Arctic policy matters across Government.

Shipping routes and mining opportunities, including those to meet the demands of the green transition, are opening up. However, the Committee is clear that these activities must not be detrimental to the natural environment or to the Indigenous Peoples living in the Arctic. Clear codes for maritime businesses must be implemented, and careful research into the consequences of mining must be conducted.

Chair's comment

Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research Chair, James Gray MP, said:

“For too long the effects of a changing Arctic have been ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Before melting glaciers and ice sheets contribute to widespread flooding and irreversible weather patterns in the UK, we must throw our full toolbox at understanding changes in the Arctic better.

“We must prioritise and put more funding behind scientific and multi-disciplinary research. At the moment, Arctic science is concentrated on its summer, with the Arctic winter – which could tell us an enormous amount about the weather – being under studied. More collaboration is needed among UK universities to avoid repetition of scientific endeavours seeking out the same information, and with our international partners to learn and share resource. The RRS Sir David Attenborough, with her ice-breaking ability, needs to spend more time in the Arctic.

“Russia has been frozen out of Western Arctic science following its invasion of Ukraine. The Arctic Council, built with the purpose of boosting collaboration with Arctic nations, is becoming less influential and much of its important work has stalled. Our loss of access to Russian data is concerning, and 50% of the Arctic is now inaccessible to Western scientists. We must look into alternative international fora to champion and collaborate on Arctic research.

“Whitehall has not been paying enough attention to the Arctic. Four Ministers jotted around different departments with no oversight on Arctic policy is a missed opportunity. The fact the Ministers are yet to meet indicates a lack of enthusiasm on Arctic matters at the heart of Government: they must meet quarterly given the drastic changes we are witnessing in our changing Arctic. The Government should now appoint a polar envoy.”

Further information

Image: Alberto Restifo/CC0