Arctic conferencing in times of corona

With much of the world in lockdown and the potentially lethal corona virus dominating the agenda, it is easy to become distracted from other important issues – such as climate change in the Arctic.

There is a trend – which I consider unfortunate and counter-productive – especially in the social media to discuss how the corona crisis could be helping the climate by reducing emissions in one way or other. There are other more constructive ways in which climate research can “benefit” from the slowdown in our everyday lives – including making use of the opportunity to concentrate on other issues without the distraction of commuting, travel and everyday commitments, it seems to me.

Virtual participation in self-isolation

Fortunately, we have the internet and digital technology that makes it possible for us all to stay in touch. It’s anything but business as usual, but we certainly have the ability to share information, opinions, thoughts – and to keep asking questions, making sure the climate discussion and research into the Arctic carry on.

Self-isolating in my home in Germany, I have been taking advantage of following some meetings online which I would not have been able to attend in person anyway. Arctic Summit Science Week 2020 has been taking place not as originally planned in Akureyri in Iceland, but in virtual space, with participants sitting in their homes and offices around the globe. I feel very thankful to the organisers who took on the huge challenge of shifting the conference to an online-only venue, which offers me the chance to benefit from it.

Isolation has its advantages (Pic. Klaus Kersken)

It includes Science for a Sustainable Arctic”, an international assembly bringing together international policymakers and scientists to discuss key Arctic issues, and Observing for Action”, the theme of the 5th Arctic Observing Summit (AOS) 2020. AOS is “an international biennial forum that aims to provide knowledge-based guidance for the design, implementation, coordination and operation of sustained, long-term international network of Arctic observing systems.”

Of course a virtual meeting is no substitute for the real thing: meeting new people, renewing contacts, following up a point from the plenary or the panel, but the networking options are still there. And being in a digital “room” with a hundred or more experts has a certain attraction.

For us journalists there is always the option of interviewing experts on the telephone or online. But listening in to presentations and panels live is something different.

It takes some time and effort to sort out the technology. I was somehow relieved to see some of the speakers experiment with their mics and cameras, just like I was doing, before it all got sorted out.

It is easy to be distracted when you are not physically in a room with others. Competing activities can tempt you away. There’s the time difference, when meetings are happening across continents. And sometimes an instance of “sub-optimal” audio quality makes it all to easy to drift off or tune out.

Recording in the wind: my usual audio challenge. (Pic. Klaus Kersken)

Catching up online

Still, I have become a fan of virtual conferences and look forward to following the keynotes and panels I missed, made available as online resources. I was happy to “meet” once again with Hajo Eicken, Professor of Geophysics and Director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the conference coordinators. His research focuses on sea ice geophysics, Arctic coastal processes, and their importance for human activities and ecosystems.

Professor Eicken was the first person I ever heard explaining the geophysics of sea ice and why we need to be concerned about it, during a trip to Alaska back in 2008. In fact it was the trip when this Iceblog was born.

Professor Eicken confirmed once again the seriousness of the climate change we are going through and its impacts on the Arctic – and on the rest of the globe. The variability and long-term trend towards less sea ice cover and more open water are ocurring on time scales much more rapid than what we are used to, presenting a huge challenge in terms of sustainability and governance, he said in a keynote.

On the sea ice at Barrow, Alaska (Pic. Irene Quaile)

More data but too few links

One thing that has struck me as I dipped into the sessions live and on You-Tube over the past few days is the repeated assertion that when it comes to the Arctic, we need better links between local observation, indigenous knowledge, national, international, satellite data. In this inter-connected age, it seems to me it should be easier than ever to make and use those links. Where are we going wrong?

“Our Indigenous peoples have always been data experts”, said Stephanie Russo Carroll from the University of Arizona in a presentation to the Arctic Observation Summit, part of the ASSW programme. More use should be made of that, she said, “especially today when we can digitise almost anything”.

As co-founder of the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network and the International Indigenous Data Sovereignty Interest Group at the Research Data Alliance, and a founding member and chair of the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, she knows what she’s talking about – and she is clearly convinced of the shortcomings of data exchange.

One of the aims of this week’s Arctic Observation summit, Hajo Eicken explained, is to make progress with a roadmap for Arctic observing and data systems and improve coordination of sustained Arctic observations. Advancing collaborative research with Indigenous knowledge holders in Alaska and enhancing the use of scientific data by Arctic communities and government agencies are high on his agenda. Ultimately, what is being discussed online in this meeting is to feed into an Arctic science ministerial meeting later this year. Key issues are at stake, from Indigenous food security to climate impacts and adaptation at global level.

Climate change? (Pic. Irene Quaile)

Virtual conferencing – the way to go

In a session summing up what had been happening at the Arctic Observing Summit up to and including April 1, Peter Schlosser, the vice president and vice provost of the Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University, noted that the dynamics of the conference had been very different, often “ looking into 20 or 30 black rectangles” instead of being together physically in one place. But, he concluded, “I think we’ve found a way to keep a conversation going”. That digital, virtual way seems set to be the “way to go” in this year that is transforming our lifestyles across the planet. As I write, the decision has been taken to postpone until next year the UN climate conference planned to be taking place in my home city Glasgow in Scotland in November. So far, it has only been worth a tiny corner in this morning’s newspaper, and a brief news mention on national radio. The conference centre where the world’s climate negotiators were to meet is being turned into an emergency hospital to treat corona patients. A frightening sign of the dimensions of the threat we are facing.

These are strange times. “Unprecedented” is a word we keep hearing. While social distancing is proving key in tackling the corona threat to health and vulnerable lives, digital conferencing is keeping communication going and making sure we don’t stop working on the other issues essential to the future of planet Earth.

Excuse me while I get back to the conference.

Time to read more? Another product of this week’s self-isolation: “Hooked on the Arctic” on Arctic Relations.

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