On the 8th of March 2021, Scotland-based researchers from physical and natural sciences, and multidisciplinary backgrounds met online to discuss physical changes to Arctic environment and coastlines. The theme of this networking meeting was Geophysical Changes and Eroding Coastlines with a focus on exploring how to enhance collaboration between Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations in Scotland-Arctic research.
This event was the eighth 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 brilliant line-up of speakers to showcase some interesting Scotland-Arctic research within the fields of geoscience and coastline research and proceeded to an open discussion with attendees to explore future opportunities for meaningful engagement in Scotland and Arctic contexts. 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. Below is a summary of key remarks and contributions.
Dr Finlo Cottier from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and the Arctic University of Norway chaired the event and outlined the aims of the network series, to tackle the fragmentation in Scottish-Arctic research and promote collaboration and networking across different disciplines. Dr Cottier commented that within the field of Geoscience, there is a good level of coordination and cooperation between researchers and so the idea of fragmentation is perhaps less prevalent within this discipline. Especially due to the communities withing SAGES, SAMS and MASTS. The bold and ambitious policy framework from the Scottish Government in 2019 has provided the mandate for these events. The field of Geophysics and Coastal erosion is one of many contributions towards Scottish-Arctic research, that Scotland can make. Dr Cottier observed that the Arctic Ocean is around 1% of the worlds ocean volume but it contributes around 35% of the world’s coastline and so coastal communities are incredibly important here. In addition to this, 10% of the world’s river run off comes into the Arctic and research on this will be expanded upon by speakers later on in the event. Dr Cottier added that most people are aware that the Arctic sea ice is diminishing, and the Arctic has been experiencing heat waves. However, there are many other aspects of geophysical change that are just as important but are perhaps a little more subtle. One of those is thawing permafrost, and another is changes to the ocean. Dr Cottier concluded by highlighting that the ocean is one of the important features that connects Scotland to the Arctic.
Professor Mark Inall, Director of the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society (SAGES), and based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and the University of the Highlands and Islands was the first speaker at the event and spoke on the contribution of the Scottish Geoscience community to the Arctic. Professor Inall opened by detailing some of the history leading up to Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework. In 2016, the First Minister (FM) Nicola Sturgeon was invited to speak at the Arctic Circle as a keynote speaker. The Arctic Circle is the international alliance of Arctic nation states but there is a real connection with Scotland, there are many geopolitical similarities between rural Scotland and many regions in Arctic states. There are a lot of Arctic issues which have a lot of resonance with Scotland. Particularly in relation to the rural communities, ecotourism, the new trade routes, and challenges within geoscience environments. After the FM’s presentation, they shared the floor with John Kerry who is now President Biden’s Climate Envoy. Following this event, Fiona Hyslop MSP, was tasked to work up Scotland’s Policy Framework for the Arctic. This followed a forum meeting in Edinburgh in 2017, and Arctic Circle forum meeting where SAGES participated and helped to organise. SAGES also fed into the consultation exercise that was led by Glasgow Caledonian University and the UHI. The policy Framework was then developed and published in 2019. This year the Scottish Government has been offered a seat on the Arctic Circle Advisory Board (2021). Previously there was the UK Arctic office representing but representation previously has never been from Scotland. Professor Inall then moved on and discussed relevant research pools that are most relevant to Arctic Geoscience and they are SAGES and the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) and highlighted that these networks are not exclusive clubs and stated that associate members are also welcomed. There are some large scale international research programmes that Scottish researchers are involved with, like trying to measure these pathways of warm water entering the Arctic and cold water leaving the Arctic. Scottish research is very much so at the forefront of this. One example of this, is research that used an underwater robotic glider that is deployed from a small boat on the West Coast of Scotland. The gliders then made their way all the way into the Arctic Ocean. They are only a couple of meters long, are fully autonomous and can move continuously for 6 months. In this project, they measured water properties like temperature, salinity, and oxygen content. Gliders can dive to depths of 1km which allowed them to measure the abyssal oceans. Professor Inall concluded by highlighting some useful networks to engage with including the UArctic, the Arctic Circle, the Arctic Office, MASTS, IASC and SAGES.
Dr Tom Cowton, a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews was the next speaker and presented some of his research on the Greenland Ice Sheet in a Changing Climate. Dr Cowton highlighted that the Greenland ice sheet is the largest body of ice outside of Antarctica. It is made of glacial ice (compressed snow) and is 1.7 million km² and over 3km thick in some part. There is enough ice here to raise sea levels by around 7 metres. The Greenland ice sheet is more vulnerable to atmospheric warming than Antarctic ice sheets and is predicted to be one of the major contributors to 21st century sea level rise. There has been rapid loss of ice in recent years, and this has accelerated significantly and contributed to 15mm of sea level rise since 1970s. This loss of mass has not been uniformed and is concentrated particularly around fast-flowing outlet glaciers and so there has been a specific focus on this as there are large uncertainties around the response of outlet glaciers. They are retreating rapidly but it is hard to isolate causes and process. Dr Cowton suggested that this is due to the interface between the ice sheet, the ocean, and the atmosphere. Recent work has involved the use of remote sensing to track the retreats of outlet glaciers to establish links between retreat and climate forcings. Glacier calving or iceberg calving is another major source of mass loss, but it is difficult to represent this in current ice sheet models. Around half of the mass loss in Greenland that occurs each year falls into the oceans in this manner. Dr Cowton highlighted a recent NERC funded project that aims to focus on this: Calving Laws for Ice Sheet Models (CALISMO). This project aims to use models to develop ‘calving laws’ that can be used in ice sheet models. Dr Cowton then moved on to discuss fjord processes as fjords from key gateways between ice sheets and the ocean. Circulation in fjords determines the availability of warm water for glacier melt and Dr Cowton is interested in studying this using numerical models used to explore circulation processes and connections between the ice sheet and ocean. Dr Cowton concluded by outlining the research focus at St Andrews University: modelling and remote sensing and commented that research groups at other Scottish institutions have undertaken major field based research in and around Greenland in recent years, highlighting the contributions to the field from Scottish based researchers. Dr Cowton also suggested some networks to engage with if interested in working in this field, including the Forum for Ice Ocean Research Development (FIORD), organised, and funded, through SAGES.
Dr Robyn Tuerna, Lecturer in Nutrient Biogeocehmistry and Co-Lead on Ocean Systems at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), presented next and shared an overview of the impacts of permafrost degradation on the Arctic Marine Environment, with some key findings from Adam Francis’ MSc project at the University of Edinburgh. The Arctic is a unique ocean that only contains about 1.3% of the global ocean volume but receives around 10% of the global riverine discharge. That means that the export from these rivers have large implications for the coastal marine environment. The Arctic as a whole has extensive areas of permafrost. Around 80% of the catchment area of the 6 main rivers in the Arctic are covered by permafrost. There are sampling programmes that occurs seasonally to look at the changing effects of the biogeochemistry of the rivers. As the environment warms, this is leading to permafrost degradation. Dr Tuerena highlighted the research by Adam Francis, which looked at Arctic Ocean productivity. The ocean is sensitive to riverine nutrient inputs, in particular Nitrogen. This is particularly important as in the marine environment, it is the primary limiting nutrient for phytoplankton. Dr Tuerna explained that if there are increased exports of nitrogen from permafrost degradation, this could have impacts on phytoplankton production in the coastal marine environment. Findings from Adam Francis’ research found that the permafrost degradation was leading to high amounts of organic nitrogen being released from the soil and ice. This led to a rapid nitrification of that organic nitrogen which is being observed further downstream. Another interesting finding of this research was that due to anaerobic conditions in the soil, a unique isotopic signature was identified. This was a useful finding from this detailed study to then use to look at other Arctic rivers. A study of the 6 main rivers in the Arctic found that levels of nitrogen were within consistent levels, apart from the Ob River. There were elevated levels of this isotope signature identified in the previous study, as well as a high levels of Nitrate. There was observed permafrost degradation and elevated Nitrogen release observed in the Ob river and this is the river with the most extensive thaw zones. There is also an important thaw mechanism which is called active layer deepening which is happening in this river catchment. Dr Tuerna concluded by outlining the implications for future work, highlighting the importance of large international collaboration and multi-year programmes as well as commenting that predicted increases in fluvial sediment load by erosion and active layer deepening across all of the Arctic, largest impact in catchments with extensive ice deposits and these impacts may become more widespread.
Professor Illan Kelman, Lead on a UArctic Thematic Network on Natural Hazards, and based at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London, was the final speaker at this event. Their thematic network at the UArctic explores hazards and vulnerabilities related to disasters, how nature is changing, but also how people react to changes and change nature locally, as well as cope with natural hazards and other natural phenomenon. Professor Kelman is particularly interested in Arctic coastal futures and commented that the Geophysical changes are many, across temporal and spatial scales. Many quick coastal changes happen in the Arctic region, one of the closest to Scotland was the Storegga Slide – one of the biggest underwater landslides that we know of. It happened 8000 years ago and changed the coastlines and settlements around Scotland and Norway. Another rapid coastal change is Tsunamis. The one in Greenland in 2017 was potentially one of the highest tsunamis known in human history. That reached up to 100 meters at source. Professor Kelman also highlighted that in Greenland, forest fires are becoming more frequent. Run off from this may lead to changes in coastal ecologies as well as rapid or slow changes along coastlines. In addition to this, Professor Kelman highlighted that there are many other slow changes that occurring, for example isostatic uplift in Scotland resulting in gaining a lot of coastal land in some areas. However, they highlighted that it is important to be aware of sea level rise irrespective of isostatic uplift. Professor Kelman then moved on to highlight other processes of coastline changes including erosion, which can be both quick and slow. In the Alaskan North and West, for example, some coasts are eroding near settlements, several metres per year whilst in Iceland they are measuring erosion at only centimetres per year, maybe slower, simply from storms and waves. Professor Kelman observed that whilst these are the timescales of geophysical changes, they have different impacts on humans when considering natural disasters and vulnerabilities and so it is important to ask what these different timelines of changing coastlines mean for human use, highlighting impacts for shipping, tourism, energy and freshwater and food security. Professor Kelman concluded by commenting that the challenge is to come together across disciplines and across different countries, to think about Arctic Coastal Futures, but also how we can create the futures that we and the coastal peoples, would want to have.
Numerous Scottish higher education institutions and research organisations were represented in the meeting: University of Dundee, University of Stirling, University of St Andrews, University of Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Aberdeen, University of Highlands and Islands, and Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). 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:
Barriers and weaknesses
- Challenge or barrier is lack of knowledge of Russian Language. Out of the 8 main countries in the Arctic, English is fine for 7 of them but Russian researchers are left out a lot. It is important to be inclusive of all regions.
- I suppose what goes hand in hand with the language barrier is the political barrier. It is difficult to work in the Russian Arctic in terms of permissions. Permissions to enter the country and undertake research. From a diplomatic perspective, permission to enter territorial waters – it is not as straight forward in Russian waters. (these challenges also remain for robotic sensors in the water or animal borne sensors too).
- One challenge is that it is difficult to communicate these research impacts when they are likely to be experienced over a long time scale. Another observation is that research on the Ice Sheet in Greenland is often done with a focus on how the melt might impact Scotland or other parts of the world, and there is less a focus on how it impacts local communities.
- It can be a little bit dangerous to look at individual research impact and expect that individual research will create impact. It is better to look at the route to policy making.
- The online environment favours some people whilst others are completely cut off. With COP for example, some of the poorer countries are refusing online negotiations. Participatory research can be incredibly successful online but there will often be a group that are excluded.
- There is no address book or database of all Arctic based research which can be a barrier for collaboration.
- There is a weakness that not all Scottish Institutions are involved in the pooling, for example GCU is not part of SAGES or MASTS as far as I am aware and that is an institutional decision because all universities are welcome. They are not closed clubs. Those are institutional decisions because it costs money.
Opportunities and strengths
- Opportunity connecting on this platform on these network events.
- Opportunity to collaborate with local people and indigenous people for knowledge exchange. There is so much opportunity to learn from indigenous knowledge that can inform our research and understanding.
- Work with colleagues and networks in country and learn from them.
- Funding streams in the EU that support Arctic research. This is not new but is an important one that has not been lost since leaving the EU.
- We have an Arctic Policy to draw from.
- University of the Arctic has wonderful funding opportunities and has good connections with Scottish researchers. Aberdeen and the UHI are two partner institutions with the University of the Arctic, as well as Glasgow Caledonian University and Strathclyde University.
- You can still join UArctic thematic networks if your institution is not a member (although this is encouraged).
- Large international programmes that have already jumped through these logistical loops or worked through certain difficult political and geographical barriers (in reference to research in Russia). It can be useful to engage with them when considering conducting research as they could offer advice or support. The International Arctic Science Committee are trying to reduce those logistical barriers.
- Having contacts in these countries can be extremely valuable as they know how things work in country.
- The bringing together the glacial and the oceanographic community has been a big change in recent years and in Scotland I think that is something we have been very good at, like at these networks through SAGE etc.
- Scotland has been active in an EU project called Blue Action which involves collaboration, and the end point is to provide Arctic businesses with the tools to adapt change. This has been a great opportunity.
- In terms of what can be learned from Arctic based institutions, looking to the University of Norway, this is Arctic based and is heavily invested in, yet they still look outwards to build networks with other Arctic groupings and teams. So, keep seeking out those networks.
- Working in Scottish-Arctic research has been a very positive one with lots of opportunities for collaboration. As an ERC we are quite lucky that the community is quite supporting.