Polar regions, climate change and the Ocean-climate nexus

To date, global warming has affected the two polar regions and the ocean in different ways.

Climate change is warming up the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world. Greenland glaciers are now releasing hundreds of gigatonnes of melted ice into the Ocean each year. Such changes will affect the EU - and the rest of the planet - through:

  • rising sea levels
  • changing weather patterns
  • a higher incidence of extreme weather events
  • permafrost thawing and release of greenhouse gases and various pathogens

At the same time, what was formerly a vast and icy wilderness, home only to people who have adapted over centuries to this hostile environment, may soon become an area for thriving economic activities.

Melting sea ice and glaciers mean that oil, gas, rare earths and other raw materials are becoming easier to access, while the ice-free ocean offers new fishing grounds and a shorter shipping route between Europe and Asia. These new economic factors cannot be ignored.

While the Arctic is undergoing fundamental changes and is gradually losing its distinctive polar character, the observable changes in the Antarctic are primarily focused on two regions: West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. East Antarctica, however, is also beginning to respond to the rising temperatures.

Importance of the Ocean with regard to climate 

The Ocean represents over 70% of the Earth's surface and contains 97% of all water on Earth. Its physical and biological processes play a key role in the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and climate variability.

The Ocean is key to regulating the Earth's climate and is the reason why it is stable and life sustaining. The extent to which the climate changes largely depends on the capacity of the ocean to absorb heat and carbon emissions associated with human activities.

Its biological compartments carry the single greatest capacity on the planet with respect to carbon sequestration. Rates of climate change on decadal to centennial time scales ultimately depend on oceanic processes.

Ocean-based mitigation and adaptation solutions have the potential of contributing 21-25% of the annual greenhouse gases emissions reductions needed by 2050. 

​The Ocean has absorbed a significant portion (some 30%) of the carbon dioxide pollution caused by human activities, and as a result is becoming more acidic. Ocean acidification affects the ability of some ocean organisms to create shells, and the potential impacts on the oceanic food web is enormous, from the Arctic to the tropics.

At the same time, Ocean warming has already resulted in deoxygenation, interrupted circulation and mixing, species shifts, marine heatwaves, coral bleaching, increased storm intensity and sea level rise. 

The Ocean-climate nexus

The Ocean-climate nexus highlights the key role of the Ocean in climate regulation and climate change at the interconnection of the various elements that regulate our planetary climate, including physical factors (heat, water, carbon) and biological systems (biological carbon-pump).

Raising awareness of the crucial role of the ocean-climate nexus for climate change processes, as well as bringing the ocean health on a path to recovery is a priority for the EU.

Horizon Europe, the EU's main research and innovation funding programme will advance the ocean-climate nexus science in an endeavour to better understand the role of seas and ocean, including the Earth’s icecaps, in climate change and help secure the long-term provision of ecosystem services, such as climate change adaptation and mitigation and carbon sequestration (both on land and sea).

Polar regions: a test bed for climate change impact and sustainable innovation

The EU has an important role to play in helping to meet the region's challenges. Some €200 million was spent on polar research projects under Horizon 2020, the funding programme (2014-2020), under the Blue Growth Focus Area. It follows steadily in the footsteps of the 7th EU Funding Programme for research and innovation (2007-2013). Polar research will continue under Horizon Europe.

The polar regions are very fragile environmental and social ecosystems. They are critical parts of the Earth and climate system as the Arctic and Antarctic are connected to global climate.  

The EU's policy on the Arctic is based on a green growth approach. It involves

  •  supporting research and channelling knowledge to tackle environmental and climate change in the Arctic. We need a better understanding of the region's role in the global system if we are to forecast the weather and climate change reliably - essential when managing risks to European infrastructure and farming.
  • sustainable resource use ensuring economic development in the Arctic is based on sustainable resource use and environmental expertise. Runaway climate change there could upset the balance worldwide.
  • stepping up EU engagement and dialogue with Arctic countries, indigenous peoples and other partners.
  • involving indigenous communities and traditional knowledge - Sustainable innovation implies taking the needs of local and indigenous communities into consideration, making use of traditional knowledge and involving different stakeholders.

Polar research needs expensive infrastructure and observation systems that call for international cooperation.

The European Commission is supporting international cooperation for Arctic research via the Arctic Science Ministerial Meetings. At the last Arctic Science Ministerial Meeting, ASM3, on 9 May 2021, Commissioner Maryia Gabriel signed the ASM3 Joint Statement on behalf of the EU.

The All-Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance sets out to better understand the Atlantic Ocean from pole to pole, particularly as regards climate change. It is the result of science diplomacy efforts involving countries from across the Atlantic Ocean, with the common goal of enhancing marine research and innovation cooperation along and across the Atlantic Ocean.

The EU-funded EU-PolarNet is the world’s largest consortium of expertise and infrastructure for polar research. Seventeen countries are represented by 22 of Europe’s world-renowned multi-disciplinary research institutions.

The Arctic and Antarctic projects funded by the Commission have started a bottom-up collaboration initiative, the EU Polar Cluster, which merges a broad spectrum of research and coordination activities. They range from the most up-to-date findings on permafrost and sea ice, enhancing observation to improving predictions, networking research stations to coordinating access to icebreakers.

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  • ReportOctober 2018Research and Innovation

    Arctic, research and innovation

    This publication provides an insight into the key areas of EU Arctic research and innovation activities.
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