Foto: Yati Chen

UiT Breakfast on the Politics and Biology of Arctic Sea Ice: Round-up and Reflections

A quick look back at UiT’s thought-provoking breakfast seminar

Written By Sophie Scotter

Every so often, UiT offers breakfast seminars featuring speakers from a range of academic fields. Covering a selection of hot topics, these 90-minute lectures are intellectually stimulating whilst at the same time, digestible. Last month, a quick jaunt into the city centre had us winding our way through the last of the sea mist toward Verdensteatret, the smell of fresh coffee oozing out from the bar where a congregation of students – quite some more than I expected – chatted amongst themselves. Sponsored by the Arctic Governance Group and the Sami Centre, the title of the talk, ‘The Biology and Politics of Arctic Sea Ice’, constituted part of this year’s Forskingsdagen.

Arctic sea ice coverage has fallen dramatically in recent history, with an extra 15 days of open water compared to measurements taken prior to 1988. This decline continues to open the region to proposed oil exploration and increased shipping traffic; whilst at the same time causing major problems for endemic ice-associated species, and Inuit communities. Given the above, the major topic up for discussion was how the seasonal and long-term dynamism of the sea-ice environment has inhibited scientists from implementing a standard definition of the ice-edge or indeed the ‘ice-zone’. Therefore, with stakeholders unable to agree on an updated ice-edge map, political and industrial sectors have become infamous amongst the scientific sector for simply selecting a definition that best fits their respective agendas.

The seminar invited two speakers to discuss this inextricable link between politics and biology, namely Marit Reigstad (Professor of sea ice biophysics, UiT) and Phil Steinberg (professor of political geography from Durham University). Both lecturers broached the controversial topic extremely well: Marit from a strictly biological perspective (digestible by all) and Phil from a far more ‘sceptical’ one. After Marit’s introduction and her neat summary of the impacts of reduced sea ice, Phil proceeded to place the controversy into both a historical and international context. What’s more, he successfully drew comparison with the governance situation across the pond in the Canadian Arctic. This was especially poignant given the country’s former prime minister was an out-and-out climate-change sceptic. However, regardless of the topical details and rigorous discussion, this seminar was fundamentally focused on how politics continues to constrain science. In a world teetering on the edge, this is of the utmost concern to students about to enter the field of polar research. Indeed, the anxiety in the auditorium was tangible.

Phil’s political scepticism had him commenting on such events as how a new chart of sea ice came to be released on exactly the same day as new areas were assigned for oil exploration. He criticised both Norwegian and international members of parliament for their illogical and industry-driven agendas and considered that a political definition of nature now exists. Given the total area of the Arctic, I for one was shocked to hear Phil explain that the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea cites just one clause mentioning sea ice, and even that one sentence is anthropogenically focused.  Marit went on to add that with the increasing rapidity of sea-ice melt, nature is playing right into industry’s hands, with drilling proposed in areas for which there is little to no baseline data available.

Although the discussion highlighted a vast array of interesting points and provoked some well-thought-out questions from the audience, I was somewhat frustrated by the ultimate conclusion: that climate change scientists will have to bite the bullet for the foreseeable future, given that politicians represent the primary decision-makers in the distribution of research funding. They did, however, stress that there needs to be a much closer dialogue between the two sectors. What’s more, despite this lengthy and sceptical discussion, neither party seemed to be aware of any movement to properly define ice zones (not even by the Arctic Council!) – which is exactly how industry would like it to stay.

With so many unknowns and pressure from politicians apt at asking loaded questions, it is no wonder that there appears to be a little progress in properly defining the ice-covered regions of the Arctic. In the typically academic fashion, this enlightening discussion left me with more questions than answers. How, when a lack of ice is a bonus for oil and shipping industries yet a nightmare for Inuit communities, do we find a reasonable solution?