The Arctic is undergoing rapid change which has the potential to impact the UK and the rest of the world. Understanding what drives this unprecedented change and its possible future consequences is a scientific challenge of the utmost urgency with important societal implications.

Changes in the Arctic affect the nature and frequency of extreme weather events and other natural hazards which threaten the UK. Increasing ice-melt on the region’s glaciated islands and the vast Greenland ice sheet could lead to changes in sea level which will affect communities and assets along our coastlines. Frozen soil, known as permafrost, stores greenhouse gases which are released if it melts, further reinforcing changes brought about by global and regional warming.

Of course, the changes we are witnessing in the Arctic bring about opportunities as well as threats. As the ice retreats, natural resources such as fish and mineral resources become more accessible, and the Northwest Passage may become an important new shipping route if it becomes ice-free on a regular basis. A broad, multidisciplinary and open-minded approach is required to grasp the scale of the challenges that lie ahead for governments, indigenous communities, natural habitats and businesses wishing to work in the Arctic.

The NERC Arctic Research Programme’s key challenge is to understand and improve our predictions of Arctic change at seasonal to decadal time scales and to establish what the regional and global impacts of such change may be. This overarching objective shapes the four major interlinked scientific questions funded by the programme:

Question 1: What is causing the rapid changes in the Arctic at the moment?

Large scale variations in the temperature and amounts of ice and water in the arctic along with atmospheric changes require more study and greater understanding.

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Question 2: What are the processes influencing the release of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide – and how much of these gases could enter the atmosphere in future?

Given the potential for large-scale greenhouse gas emissions as the Arctic warms it is crucial we estimate how much carbon is stored in Arctic permafrost and continental shelves and investigate the timescales over which it might be released.

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Question 3: How can we improve our predictions of what will happen to the climate in the Arctic and the amounts of greenhouse gases released in the future?

How can we improve existing computer models to project what the future holds for the Arctic and the rest of the world.

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Question 4: Are the risks of natural hazards in the Arctic region increasing as a result of regional warming and what are the threats posed to the UK?

We need to know how stable underwater slopes in the Arctic are, how seismic activity or degassing of thawing methane hydrates within sediments could affect them and what natural hazards could be caused if they collapse.

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Image credits: British Antarctic Survey, Richard Turner and Suzanne McGowan. Picture 1: View from Ny Alesund, picture 2: Comfortlessbreen Glacier in Svalbard, picture 3: polar bear sighting off RSS James Clark Ross, picture 4: mosquito protestion at Disko Island lake, picture 5 & 6: ACCACIA uses BAS twin otter.