Arctic Science Cannot Afford a New Cold War



Records are being broken in the Arctic, but not the kinds to celebrate. Last summer, Greenland lost more than twice as much ice as the yearly average since 2003. And in this century, the rate of ice loss from Greenland will exceed anything seen in the past 12,000 years, researchers report in this issue (J. P. Briner et al. Nature 586, 70–74; 2020).

Such changes are drastically altering the lives of the region’s four million people. Vanishing sea ice has fundamentally changed or even destroyed Indigenous Arctic communities’ subsistence hunting. As permafrost thaws and wave heights rise, whole villages are moving inland to escape coastal erosion.

But the Arctic is not just a landscape of nature and change. It is also the arena in which Canada, the northern European nations, Russia, the United States and now China compete with each other for regional influence, trade routes and the search for hydrocarbons.

Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has no international treaty through which nations commit to peace, and to cooperation in science. Instead, most Arctic nations have a military presence in the region and they jostle for oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as newly opened shipping routes. But the eight Arctic states, along with six Indigenous peoples’ organizations, do have something else. All are members of the Arctic Council — an international forum that exists to facilitate science-based cooperation on issues including environmental protection and marine sustainability. Members share research expertise and communicate findings to policymakers, including the member countries’ foreign ministers, who attend biennial meetings.

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