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CNR: Alamanacco della Scienza

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N. 17 - 11 dic 2013
ISSN 2037-4801

International info   a cura di Cecilia Migali

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Studying the impacts of climate change in the Arctic

Global climate change is proceeding at a rate which surprises public opinion and, sometimes, even scientists. Data and models confirm the trend towards warmer temperatures in the Arctic.

This will affect the life of many Arctic organisms and pose serious concerns for the environment both at local and global scales; at the same time, this change in climate and especially the associated ice melting provides relevant economic opportunities such as the availability of huge energy resources (oil and gas) and new routes for maritime communications. It is widely recognized that changes in the Arctic can produce effects even at the global level. There are important scientific evidence that climate change in the Arctic could affect the weather and climate in Europe: A prominent example is the apparent connection between the decrease in the extent of sea ice in the polar summer and the severity of European winters.

In the next few years, because of climate change in the Arctic, the international community should take relevant decisions about economic, social and environmental issues. In this context, a basis of reliable scientific knowledge is a prerequisite to make informed decisions and adopt sustainable solutions for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. To answer such basic questions as "Why Arctic sea ice is decreasing so quickly?" or "What are the local and global impacts of climate change in the Arctic?" and to significantly improve our ability to forecast future scenarios, the entire Arctic system must be monitored and investigated in an interdisciplinary and international collaborative framework.

The complexity of the Arctic system is highlighted by the strong variations which have been recently recorded even about ice extension: for example, in 2012 the minimum value of ice cover was recorded with an average in September of approximately 3.6 million km2; while in 2013 a September ice cover of 5.35 million km2 have been observed, with a difference of +1.75 million km2 corresponding to a variation of 33%. But this is due to annual and seasonal variability and does not alleviate the problem of climate change and increasing temperature.

To contribute to this knowledge need becoming dramatically urgent, the National Research Council of Italy (Cnr) operates a permanent station, Dirigibile Italia since 1997. The station is located at 79° N latitude in the Svalbard archipelago, in the village of Ny-Ålesund. This village in the '20s was the starting point for Umberto Nobile expedition to North Pole, while today is a unique example of scientific outpost devoted to research monitoring, investigation and international scientific cooperation, with 11 countries hosted.

In recent years the station has been equipped with several relevant observational platforms providing real-time measurements throughout the course of the year: the 34 m high Climate Change Tower (Cct), the Gruvebadet aerosols laboratory, a site for marine monitoring (mooring) continuously recording the conditions of temperature, salinity and sedimentation processes in the fjord on which overlooks Ny-Ålesund. These research activities have contributed to improve the role of Italy in the arctic scientific context and therefore providing a crucial contribution to the negotiation by Italian Government and especially by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consolidate the role of our country in the Arctic Council and to achieve the status of Permanent Observer, in May 2013.

Measurements carried out by Cnr observing platforms allowed to point out that since 2009 the spring thaw, a phenomenon that usually starts the 3rd week of June and lasts for a couple of weeks, is systematically anticipating.  Indeed since 2009 thaw and ice melting is starting in late May or early June. The Cct data allowed, for the first time, to continuously monitor the heat flux between the surface and the atmosphere; results showed that the period in which this flux is positive, i.e. the energy flows from the surface to the atmosphere is very short, starting at earliest in  mid June and ending inexorably before the end of August.

The NySmac conference recently held at the Italian National Research Council headquarters in Rome, concludes a cycle of fall events that made Rome the center of attention for Arctic Science. In fact, in mid-September, Cnr and the Canadian Embassy hosted meetings to discuss the guidelines and the scientific priorities of the European Commission in the Arctic and to strengthen the collaboration with Us and Canada to build a system of pan Arctic scientific infrastructures. The conference organized by the Department of Earth System Science and Environmental Technology (Dta) of CNR is part of a series of biennial meetings organized under the auspices of the Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee (NySmac) and that are aimed at 'take stock' of the state of research in Ny-Ålesund. The 2013 edition (11th NySmac seminar) recorded an especially high number of participants among which it is noteworty the presence of Asian representatives (China, Korea, Japan and India) and, for the first time, a Russian delegate.

Topics discussed during the seminar include: dynamic and composition of the atmosphere, effects of continental glaciers melting onto marine waters, effects of permafrost thaw both in terms of the stability of slopes, for the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, monitoring the size and mass of glaciers; study of the behavior of micro-organisms to climate change, a study of the carbon cycle on deglaciated areas; studies on the presence of pollutants (e.g. mercury) in the atmosphere and in the snow cover; effects of climate change on ecosystems.

More than 120 researchers from European countries and Asian countries met to present and discuss the results of their research. The meeting was also aimed at discussing the future development of research in Svalbard, with special attention to the prospects for integration and enhancement of collaborative science offered by Sios (Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System) initiative, one of the relevant environmental infrastructures, in the  Esfri (European Science Forum for Research infrastructures) the European roadmap.

Enrico Brugnoli

Ruggero Casacchia