Interviews & Opinions


We must strengthen Arctic research: From local to global expansion — An interview with PD Hiroyuki Enomoto regarding the results of "ArCS II"


Environmental changes in the Arctic Ocean caused by global warming exert a variety of impacts on Japan, including unusually heavy snowfall, meandering typhoons, and poor saury catches. To manage this situation, continuous observation of the Arctic Ocean and impact assessment based on this observation are essential.

"ArCS II," Arctic Challenge for Sustainability II, is currently being conducted mainly by the National Institute of Polar Research, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, and Hokkaido University. To what extent has this project clarified the relationship between environmental changes in the Arctic and their impact on Japan? Project Director (PD) Hiroyuki Enomoto, Vice Director-General of the National Institute of Polar Research commented, "Arctic research has evolved from local to global. Japan is working on this theme with about 300 researchers and collaborators from natural science to social science, which is highly appreciated internationally."

Hiroyuki Enomoto, Vice Director-General of the National Institute of Polar Research, Project Director of the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability II "ArCS II"

Joined at the end of the Cold War

Japan began its involvement with Arctic research around 1990, after the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. This is because until then, research had been conducted primarily in Canada and Iceland and observations off the Russian coast were not possible. In 1990, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) was established, and international Arctic research began in earnest. Moreover, the Arctic Environment Research Center was established at the Institute of Polar Research.

In 1991, Japan established a joint observatory with Norway in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, and joined the IASC as a non-Arctic country. The government's flagship projects are GRENE, which began in 2011, and the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS), which commenced in 2015, and ArCS II is its successor. ArCS II aims to assess the impact of rapid environmental changes in the Arctic on human society and to implement research results into society by promoting advanced research into understanding the actual conditions and processes of environmental changes in the Arctic region and advancements in weather and climate predictions. Moreover, it aims to provide scientific knowledge that will be the basis for legal policy responses for international rule formation in the Arctic to domestic and international stakeholders.

It is being discovered that environmental changes in the Arctic Ocean significantly impact Japan. Enomoto says, "In recent years, sea ice in the Arctic has been decreasing steadily. As the Arctic Ocean warms, Eurasia cools, affecting the atmospheric pressure field and westerly wind flow, which in turn influences the weather in Japan. For example, in December 2021, Niigata and other areas experienced record snowfall because the melting of sea ice in the Barents Sea caused high-latitude westerly winds (cold front jet stream) to meander significantly to the south in the Far East, facilitating the flow of cold air into the vicinity of Japan. Some recent studies have reported that this impact comes from the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean," he says.

"On the other hand, the ocean is warming up, and cold winds are blowing out into that ocean, which is just like an open-air bath. This condition creates difficulties in catching saury in waters around Japan. Additionally, in 2023, a research team from Japan, South Korea, and Canada discovered hypoxic and acidified seawater in the Chukchi Sea plateau, far from the Arctic coastal area. It is believed that the coastal erosion and thawing of permafrost along the Siberian coast have washed organic matter out to the sea. When it decomposes, it results in hypoxia and acidification," he says.

A new sea route is a byproduct

Observation of the Arctic region is of industrial importance. Shipping routes between Asia and Europe require passage through the Suez Canal and Cape of Good Hope. However, if Arctic routes can be developed, more efficient and stable transportation will be possible. The Russian shipping lane is unstable due to the international situation. However, the U.S. NSF continues to observe it at the very edge of the Russian EEZ. When sea ice melts completely, swells become stronger and rougher in the sea area. In addition to understanding the impact on the global environment, knowing such changes will help shipbuilders to design ships with the right performance and aid shipping companies to set their routes," said Enomoto.

Japanese researchers also contribute to international rulemaking. "Around 2015, there was a discussion at an international conference regarding whether any country should be allowed to fish in the Arctic Ocean because it is high seas. Over the next three years, a rule was established to conduct 16 years of surveys, for instance on how many fish are there in the Arctic Ocean, and to submit a report every two years to analyze the results. Japanese researchers have contributed greatly to this," Enomoto explained.

40 giant craters

Environmental changes in the Arctic have been rapid in recent years. Enomoto commented, "Recently, many craters of several tens of meters have been discovered in Siberia. This is said to be due to methane bombs, an explosion of methane gas generated underground with the melting of permafrost. So far, approximately 40 sites have been identified from airplanes and other sources; however, because they are in Russia, international surveys cannot be conducted, and the IPCC report does not reflect this information. Furthermore, ice is rapidly decreasing in Greenland."

"We are in a loop of melting and rising sea levels, which in turn causes ice on the coastline to collapse. The Arctic region is warming at a rate four times faster than the global average. If a switch is flipped somewhere, global warming can go through the roof," he points out.

Growing reputation of Japanese researchers

ArCS II has produced a range of results, which have helped the Japan Meteorological Agency to make long-term forecasts and clarify the causes of extreme weather events. The Japanese researchers were well received by the residents of the Arctic region, and when they could not go out to observe due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they even asked local residents to operate instruments for them. In addition, there are active exchanges among researchers regarding observation and analysis, social impact assessment, international law, etc., and the training of young researchers is progressing well. Meanwhile, it is said that local research has been limited by the rising cost of raw materials due to the situation in Ukraine and the weak yen. Because ArCS II will end at the end of this fiscal year, the next project is under consideration. Much attention will be paid to the extent to which Arctic observation research, which is directly related not only to international contributions but also to the lives of Japanese citizens, can be strengthened.

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd. ( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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