On 22nd February 2021, Scotland-based researchers from physical and natural sciences, biochemistry, ecology, and multidisciplinary backgrounds met online to discuss environmental (including climatic and anthropogenic) challenges for the Arctic’s environment and biodiversity, and how to enhance collaboration between Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations in Scotland-Arctic research.
This event was the first event in a network series titled “Scotland’s Role and Contribution in a Changing Arctic Environment” supported by the Scottish Government through the Nordic and Arctic Unit Directorate for External Affairs. These network events intend to lay the foundation for consolidating Scottish expertise on Arctic matters and build an interdisciplinary network for more consistent involvement of Scottish institutions in Arctic research and international forums.
This event featured a great line-up of speakers to showcase some interesting Scotland-Arctic research on mental and physical health and proceeded to an open discussion with attendees to explore how we might advance Scotland-Arctic research. A recording of the event is available online – click here. If you attended the session, or watched the recording, and wanted to contribute further thoughts and join a dedicated Scotland-Arctic mailing list, you can by filling out this survey – click here. There will also be two consolidation events to reflect on this network series and start the initial steps towards a Scotland-wide Arctic research network on the 15th (click here) and 17th March (click here).
Below is a summary of key remarks and contributions.
Dr Karin Helwig, Programme Leader at Centre for Climate Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University, opened the event as Chair with an observation that the Arctic is home to unique and irreplaceable terrestrial and marine habitats, include the tundra the mountains and marine environments and it is home to tens of thousands of highly adapted species. Dr Helwig went on to explain many of these species are suffering due to some of the most significant temperature changes anywhere on the planet, as well as Arctic waters being prone to acidification due to the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition, pollution is a concern. The Arctic is one of our most pristine environments, but also one of the most fragile. Oil spills from development sites and pipelines pose a serious threat, and the melting of the sea ice enables further exploration for fossil fuels and the risk of further pollution and habitat destruction. Micro plastics and various persistent organic pollutants, and air pollutants from shipping and drilling rigs as well as from the nearby boreal forest fires, also pose a threat. There is a great and urgent need to understand the impacts of environmental pollution on biodiversity, and through events like these we can exchange knowledge and help strengthen the networks for collaboration and further Scotland-Arctic research.
Dr Sarah Woodin, Reader in the School of Biological Sciences at University of Aberdeen, showcase research on increased atmospheric deposition of nitrogen to tundra and the resulting significant reduction in ecosystem carbon stocks if phosphorus is limiting. Dr Woodin explained tundra carbon stocks are a result of the balance between growth of plants, particularly moss, and decomposition and that tundra soils contain ~40% of global carbon soil stocks. Research was conducted in Svalbard, Norway, showed nitrogen availability may increase in tundra due to increased resource exploitation resulting in increased shipping or drilling with the loss of sea ice. An increase could also be from increased precipitation or overall warming which would contribute to warming in the soil and increased mineralisation which would make more nitrogen available to plants. That last mechanism may also operate for phosphorus. It is generally agreed that in temperate systems increased nitrogen availability in ecosystems can increase carbon sequestration. Another key finding is that these effects are mediated by the moss layer. The moss layer is hugely important in all Arctic and Peatland ecosystems. With the moss layer, the same mechanisms may occur much more widely at high latitudes.
Dr Kim Last, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology and Chronobiology at Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), gave an overview of the ‘Deep Impact’ project, a collaboration between SAMS and the University of Tromso, looking at the impact of light pollution in the Arctic. Dr Last explained that light pollution is an emerging problem in the Arctic because, with continuing sea ice retreat, the region is becoming lighter and more open to commercial shipping. The Polar Night is an important light refuge for marine zooplankton as we know that moonlight and sunlight are extremely important in structuring the phenology and the timing for marine organisms. However, the Arctic is opening and there are some predictions that the Arctic will be ice free by 2050 and because of this, trade routes are opening as well as opportunities for resource exploitation, and this will affect marine life. A study in 2020 in Billefjord, Svalbard, provided data that revealed light pollution from research vessels results in changes in swimming behaviour in fish and zooplankton. We now believe that light pollution will result in net sampling bias. So, many of the papers that have been published over the last few years on activity during the polar night might need to be revisited in light of this information.
Professor Philip A. Wookey, Professor in Biological and Environmental Sciences, spoke of the need for research collaboration, why it is important and how we can foster it. Dr Wookey provided the context that the Arctic is a huge and complex region undergoing rapid environmental and socio-economic change. The region is seriously impacted by events occurring further south, and can be considered a ‘bellwether’ of change, but it is also a critical component of the Earth System. International and cross-disciplinary research efforts are needed to quantify, understand and predict change, and Scotland-based scientists are strongly involved in, or leading, some of the key initiatives, several of which have been running for decades (e.g. the International Tundra Experiment). This is important as much of the biodiversity of the Arctic is poorly quantified and understood. Even with well-known taxa, the functional ecology is poorly constrained, and both trophic interactions, and links with ecosystem processes and services, require focused, mechanistic research. However, remote-sensing platforms (e.g. satellites and drones) can provide an immense amount of useful data, but community based initiatives and ‘boots on the ground’ are still needed to investigate ecosystem processes and phenomena in sufficient detail to underpin robust understanding, and modelling of future scenarios.
Dr Isabel C. Barrio, Lead of uArctic Thematic Network on Herbivory, Agricultural University of Iceland, provided an overview of the UArctic Network on Herbivory serves as a platform for researchers investigating the impacts of herbivores on tundra ecosystems, and spoke of the network as a model for coordinating research efforts across the Arctic and how Scotland based researchers can contribute to Arctic research. The herbivory network is relatively new, first endorsed by the UArctic just a year ago. This network builds on an ongoing initiative which is an international network of researchers that are interested in understanding the role of herbivores in Arctic and Alpine ecosystems. The main network was established in 2014 following the Arctic Councils meetings and currently involves more than 200 scientists from more than 20 countries. Grass-roots initiatives driven by a common scientific interest can drive research cooperation and coordinating research efforts is necessary across a vast and remote region like the Arctic. One of the main goals of the herbivory network is to serve as a platform to facilitate research cooperation and we have been doing that by promoting the implementation of joint research projects, the organisation of scientific meetings and workshops and the training of students. In this way, being a UArctic Thematic Network has helped consolidate activities and opened up many opportunities.
Numerous Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations were represented in the meeting; University of Stirling, Strathclyde University, University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, University of Aberdeen, Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), University of the Highlands and Islands, Herriot Watt University, University of St Andrews, Glasgow Caledonian University. We were also joined by researchers from various UArctic affiliated institutions and interested members of the public and civil society.
Attendees discussed opportunities and barriers to Scotland-Arctic research, the potential benefit of this research to people in Scotland and the Arctic, and strengths and weaknesses of Scottish research in the Arctic. Below is a summary of responses:
Opportunities and strengths
- The University of the Arctic has some great opportunities for early career researchers
- The EU INTERACT programme in another great opportunity for Scotland-Arctic research
- Another a good source of support is the Svalbard Science Forum which can maybe help with getting funding
- The international Arctic Summit Week is also a superb opportunity for networking into the different communities.
- Opportunities that have been created Scotland’s Arctic policy framework which has opened up a lot of doors and there has been a very warm welcome from the Arctic nations towards researchers from Scotland
- Other opportunities are being created in Scotland through various research networks, e.g. geoscience research network, and marine science research network.
- The Svalbard Environment Fund which funds local projects as a way of doing small targeted projects
- The Russian Arctic that have always been quite inaccessible but there is a real push now for UK and Russian Arctic networks to be established and there is funding to support this; the UK-Russia Arctic Bursaries Programme
- There is less of a sense of competition within Scotland and more a sense of collaboration
- There is a great base of Scottish researchers working on the complex feedbacks of different elements of biodiversity and, because there are these complex feedbacks, we can collaborate to understand each of the elements as a team.
- There is a strong linkage of Scottish people in parts of the Arctic, such as Longyearbyen mostly through students and access through the University Centre in Svalbard.
- Joining UArctic networks provide an opportunity to overcome some of the limitations of doing research in the Arctic like financial limitations or the remoteness.
- In terms of proximity, Scotland is very close to the Arctic – and this make it easier for Scotland-based researchers to get there.
- There is opportunity for a greater emphasis on how local communities are involved in the research process as travel restrictions have highlighted the need for local partners. For example, pursuing partnerships with Indigenous communities would greatly benefit research examining environmental changes in their local environment.
- Scotland demonstrates leadership in certain research areas and Scotland should and can pursue building critical mass internationally
- Scottish institutions have been successful with small pots of funding to do knowledge exchanges. Scotland could learn from Norwegian institutes which are very good facilitating knowledge exchanges.
Barriers and weaknesses
- The Arctic itself is a challenge as it is a financial challenge to get there and research can end up working just within a single location and hindering the ability to scale up research
- A major barrier is the availability of funding for individual projects, but a large consortium might be more successful.
- Scottish institutions need to be networking outside of Scotland if we are to effectively work in the Arctic. Unless there is going to be a source of Scottish funding for people to network together to do it, then we need to be thinking of our networks more broadly.
- Travel expenses to the Arctic are probative and, due to the coronavirus and mandated quarantines, the travel expenses are even more severe.
- It is also prohibitively expensive to conduct fundamental mechanistic research, with boots on the ground/divers in the sea/animals in aquariums