Troubled Arctic waters

The Arctic ice cap is melting at an alarming rate, dramatic satellite images showing record lows in its extent are the stuff of headlines in late summer every year. Yet something less visible, but equally, if not more threatening is going on year-round.

The Arctic Ocean is acidifying faster than any other. Food chains and the fish and animals that depend on them are threatened, with indigenous peoples in turn facing disappearance of their sustenance.

These are the principal results of a three-year, first-ever comprehensive study of Arctic Ocean acidification conducted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) and reported at an international conference at Bergen last month. The most disturbing result was the place of the Arctic Ocean in the global picture.

The world’s oceans’ ability to absorb greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), from the atmosphere was initially thought to be beneficial because it combats global warming. But it’s recently been found to have a downside. The CO2 the seawater absorbs changes its chemistry in a process called acidification.

This comes about because chemical reactions occur when seawater absorbs carbon dioxide, reducing its pH. PH is an acid to alkaline measurement scale from zero to 14, on which 7 is neutral. The abbreviation pH comes from the original term in German meaning ‘power of Hydrogen’.

The pH reduction in seawater, then, leads to it being more acidic. It also eventually results in a reduction of calcium carbonate minerals, the vital building blocks for the shells and skeletons of many marine organisms. As seawater acidifies, it becomes less capable of supporting the minute organisms at the bottom of the marine life food chain. The Arctic Ocean is particularly vulnerable, because CO2 is more readily absorbed in cold water. So it is acidifying faster than oceans elsewhere. The sustainability of its Arctic animal and fish populations are threatened, with time.


  • AMAP is an initiative of the Arctic Council, a top-level intergovernmental forum dealing with issues faced by Arctic-located countries and the indigenous peoples there.
  • It has eight members: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US, as well as some 30 permanent observers, now including China, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea. The new observers cannot vote, but they bring in expertise and financing that contribute to the Council’s goals.
  • China has led expeditions to the Arctic, both Japan and Korea have icebreakers that enable them to field Arctic expeditions.
  • At the 15 May ministerial meeting in Sweden’s Kiruna, the Council agreed on measures and guidelines to address the challenges of pollution, including ocean acidification.
  • The Arctic Council has a permanent secretariat hosted by the Norwegian Polar Institute located in the Fram Centre in northern Norway’s Tromsø. The Centre takes its name from the Fram the schooner Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen used in expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, respectively.
  • The vessel Fram also has a Scottish connection. Shipwright Colin Archer, whose parents had emigrated from Scotland to Norway in 1825, designed and built it in Lavik. It now is on display at the Fram Museum at Bygdøy outside Oslo.

Michael Brady, The Foreigner, 6 June 2013. Article.

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