Arctic Council COP25 side event on ocean acidification was a call for action

The Arctic is experiencing some of the fastest rates of ocean acidification with potentially severe implications for the ecosystem and communities dependent on these. To raise awareness on acidifying waters and to bring state-of-the-art knowledge on the issue to a global arena, the Arctic Council organized a side event “All aboard! Tackling polar ocean acidification” at the COP25 in Madrid.

The side event was led by the Icelandic Chairmanship, organized in cooperation with the Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) Working Group, and hosted in the Cryosphere Pavilion. It brought together leading international acidification experts for a one and a half hour briefing on the chemical, biological, and socio-economic impacts of acidifying waters in the North – and what can be done to tackle the issue.

Iceland’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, HE. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, opened the side event and highlighted his country’s close ties to its surrounding waters. “Iceland takes any changes in the marine environment very seriously. Fisheries are a main pillar of Iceland’s economy. So, any threats to the Arctic marine ecosystem is of concern to Icelandic society”, he stated in his opening.

Ocean acidification in Arctic waters is widespread and rapid, and while the Arctic Ocean as a whole can be considered as especially vulnerable, the effects of acidifying waters are not uniform across the Arctic. “For the AMAP Arctic Ocean Acidification Assessment 2018 we developed five regional case studies and found that effects and impacts on communities vary across the Arctic. Findings such as the potential reduction in sustainable harvest of the Barents Sea cod stocks by the end of the century are severe – not just for the region but on a global scale”, said Rolf Rødven, executive secretary of AMAP.

AMAP’s assessment was recently backed up by the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. “The AMAP and IPCC reports present complimentary messages on ocean acidification in the high latitudes. Similar as in the rest of the world, ocean acidification is progressing as a result of continued carbon emissions. However, the polar oceans are especially vulnerable to atmospheric emissions because colder seawater naturally absorbs a larger fraction of CO2”, Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the IPCC, stated at the side event.

The ocean has absorbed around one fourth of the carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels globally. Yet, this important role as carbon sink is imperilled. “Ocean acidification is diminishing the ocean’s role in taking up CO2. For every step acidification advances, the ability of the ocean to take up more CO2 becomes smaller and therefor the potential for future global warming increases”, explained Prof Richard Bellerby, from the East China Normal University and Norwegian Institute for Water Research, and Chair of AMAP’s 2018 assessment.

While some marine organisms might benefit from a higher concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide, such as algae, the negative impacts are very likely to outweigh any positive effects, as attendees of the side event learned. “It is complicated because ocean acidification does not happen in isolation. There are multiple stressors affecting life in the Arctic Ocean, such as warming waters, the loss of sea ice and the inflow of freshwater from melting glaciers. However, generally speaking we see and expect a lot more negative impacts”, said Dr Helen Findlay from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

These effects will particularly be felt by societies that are closely linked to the Arctic marine environment – including many Indigenous coastal communities across the Arctic. “The food-web in the Arctic ocean is very sensitive, so a significant increase in the population of one species or the disappearance of another could have dramatic dripple effects on the entire Arctic marine ecosystem and we Inuit are a part of this ecosystem”, stated Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice President of International Affairs for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada.

In a society that is intricately linked to the marine biodiversity, ocean acidification alters not just the chemistry of the waters, but also livelihoods, cultures, identities and languages. Ko Barrett thus urged the audience to view the effects of ocean acidification in the context of what this means to people in the Arctic – and beyond. “The changes that are documented in the Arctic are sweeping and severe. And while not experienced directly by much of the earth’s population, these changes are important all across the globe. These changes to the remote areas show that even – and especially there – human induced warming and ocean change is evident. This is a clear call to action,” she said in closing her intervention at the side event.

In order to base that action on the best available knowledge, AMAP is continuing its work on ocean acidification and is broadening the perspective to take multiple stressors into account that impact life in the Arctic Ocean.

Background information about the Arctic Council’s side event at COP25:

The side event was held on 9 December 13:00-14:30 in the Cryosphere Pavilion at the COP25 in Madrid. A recording of the full event and interviews with the speakers are available on the Arctic Council Vimeo channel.

Agenda

Opening remarks – Icelandic Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, HE. Mr. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson

Expert Panel

  • Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere.
  • Prof. Richard Bellerby, Director of the SKLEC-NIVA Centre for Marine and Coastal Research, East China Normal University, China, and Lead researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Norway: Key findings of the AMAP Arctic Ocean Acidification report
  • Dr. Helen Findlay, Biological oceanographer at Plymouth Marine Laboratory: The impacts of ocean acidification on Arctic species and ecosystems
  • Lisa Koperqualuk, Vice President of International Affairs for the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada: The effects of ocean acidification on Inuit communities

Outlook – Dr. Rolf Rødven, Executive Secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP): Summary of key points from presentations and overview of ongoing and upcoming work by AMAP related to ocean acidification

Moderator: Ambassador Stefán Skjaldarson, Arctic Council Chairmanship Iceland

Arctic Council, 13 December 2019. Article.

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