Life in the Arctic has always been defined by change and uncertainty. The seasons transform the landscape, the weather is unpredictable, and conditions can shift abruptly, sometimes dangerously. Yet the Arctic is now changing at an unprecedented pace, on multiple levels, in ways that fundamentally affect both people and ecosystems.
This report* is the culmination of a five-year effort to better understand the nature of Arctic change, including critical tipping points, as well as the factors that support resilience, and the kinds of choices that strengthen adaptive capacity. Because local changes are nested in larger-scale processes, it is especially important that interactions across scales are better understood. An integral part of the assessment is to identify policy and management options that may be needed for strengthening resilience, for adaptation, and for transformational change when this is necessary.
The project has been led by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in collaboration with the Resilience Alliance. It has been pursued in consultation with Arctic countries and Indigenous Peoples, and has included collaboration with several Arctic scientific organizations.
The changes happening in the Arctic today are driven primarily by external factors. Climate change is the most pervasive and powerful driver of change, but many other environmental changes are taking place as well, alongside rapid social and economic developments. In some contexts, factors such as resource demand, transportation needs, migration, geopolitical changes and globalization are making the greatest impact on the Arctic. Indeed, many Arctic social-ecological systems face multiple stressors at once.
Slowing Arctic change and building resilience are thus crucial for the people and ecosystems of the Arctic – but the report also highlights the stakes for the world as a whole.
*Download the full text from the right-hand column. The key messages from each chapter are provided below. Please see the full text for much more detail.
Approach and scope
This report uses the concepts of resilience and social-ecological systems to provide a holistic view of the Arctic. A social-ecological system is the combination of the human and natural systems in any given place: for example, the Skolt Sámi communities in Finland, and the ecosystem that sustains them, including the salmon in the Näätämö River. Resilience, as we define it in this report, is the capacity to buffer and adapt to stress and shocks, and thus navigate and even shape change. Interest in the concept of resilience has grown dramatically in recent years, and it is featured prominently in the Paris Agreement on climate change, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, among others. Given the large and rapid changes occurring in the Arctic, resilience is immensely relevant to the people of the Arctic, its ecosystems, and the management and governance or the region’s natural resources. The approach taken in this report builds upon decades of research on social-ecological resilience, and a growing body of knowledge on the Arctic in particular.
This report is the concluding scientific product of the Arctic Resilience Assessment, a project launched by the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The project’s 2013 Interim Report provided the conceptual foundations for this final report, as well as a detailed survey of resilience research in the Arctic to date. This Final Report extends that effort by providing a novel assessment of Arctic change and resilience, including factors that appear to support or weaken resilience. It provides an overview of tools and strategies that can be used to assess and build resilience in the Arctic, and considers how the Arctic Council can contribute to those efforts. We hope the insights presented here will help Arctic nations to better understand the changes taking place in the region, and contribute to strengthening Arctic people’s capacity to navigate the rapid, turbulent and often unexpected changes they face in the 21st century.
Humans in Nature – Arctic Social-Ecological Systems
An Arctic Resilience Assessment
The Arctic is undergoing rapid, sometimes turbulent change beyond anything previously experienced. That change is due to climate change, resource extraction, tourism, political change and other factors, driven primarily from outside the Arctic – and it has global implications.
Within the Arctic, the integrity of ecosystems and the sustainability of communities are being challenged, affecting how people live and pursue their livelihoods.
Understanding Arctic change requires a systemic perspective that integrates human and natural dynamics. We apply a social-ecological systems approach, which assumes that to adequately understand either social or ecological systems, we need to understand how they interact.
Our analysis focuses on the resilience of social-ecological systems in the Arctic, which we define as the capacity to navigate change by adapting or reorganizing in response to stress and shocks in ways that maintain essential identity, function and structures.
Multiple Arctics: Resilience in a region of diversity and dynamism
There is only one Arctic, but there are multiple perspectives on the region: as a homeland, a source of resources, a key part of a global system of climate regulation. In that sense, there are multiple, diverse Arctics.
Differing perceptions of the Arctic lead to fragmentation: different aspects of the region are experienced, observed, researched, planned and managed separately. However, because the Arctic is actually a single place with interlinked, interacting pieces, actions in one realm can have unintended and sometimes unexpected consequences.
The efforts of Arctic Council Working Groups to integrate research and observation across disciplines and knowledge systems represents a crucially important development for understanding how human-ecological interactions shape the Arctic.
Some goals and ambitions for the Arctic are likely to be mutually exclusive, but many can be aligned through consultation and negotiation. There are several examples of cooperation for mutual benefit and resilience-building. A key first step is to build a common understanding of the ways in which the diverse aspects of the Arctic – social, ecological and physical – are intertwined and co-evolve.
The Drama of Change
Arctic regime shifts and resilience
We have identified 19 “regimeshifts” – hard-to-predict, persistent reorganizations of Arctic ecosystems – that can and have occurred in Arctic marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. These regime shifts impact the stability of the climate and landscape, the ability of people to travel, the presence of plants and animals, and people’s sense of place.
All Arctic countries are vulnerable to 10 or more regime shifts. Russia, the US and Canada are exposed to 18 of 19 regime shifts – more than other Arctic countries.
The potential impacts of Arctic regime shifts on the rest of the world are substantial, yet poorly understood. Oceans, air movement, animals and people connect changes in the Arctic to the rest of the world and may transmit change in surprising ways.
Human-driven climate change greatly increases the risk of Arctic regime shifts, so reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to reducing this risk.
There is some potential to increase the resilience of current Arctic regimes to climate change, because the risk of 14 of 19 regime shifts is influenced by local practices such as grazing and fishing. Maintaining diversity, monitoring gradual changes in feedbacks, and preparing for surprise are strategies to build resilience to cope with regime shifts.
What factors build or erode resilience in the Arctic?
The ability of people to self-organize underlies resilience in the Arctic. The erosion of this ability is found in all cases we examined that exhibited a loss of resilience. Self-organization requires knowledge, local-level monitoring, and the ability of people to define problems and implement an agreed-upon plan.
Historically, many policies of Arctic nations have eroded and restricted self-organization, but adopting new policies that enable and support it can build resilience.
The ability of people to navigate change and uncertainty, nurture diversity, and learn by combining different types of knowledge also contribute to resilience, though not as strongly as the ability to self-organize. It is important to improve monitoring of these capacities.
There are multiple examples of Arctic people transforming how they live and connect to nature while maintaining their identity. We found cases of communities developing new forms of art, food production and tourism. These transformations are not well understood, but there are substantial opportunities to learn from both successful and unsuccessful examples of transformation.
The Policy Context: Shaping Change
Shared decision-making in a changing Arctic political landscape
Arctic policy is part of a dynamic global policy landscape, where decisions and norms from outside the Arctic increasingly shape Arctic policy.
Negotiation, shared decision-making and policy development–often referred to as governance – play a central role in shaping change in social-ecological systems by shaping how people access, use and modify parts of the Arctic.
The Arctic Council faces three major challenges in a crowded and increasingly globalized Arctic policy landscape: to define its specific place and role; to strengthen its capacity to effectively engage with a multitude of other relevant policy processes; and to navigate the questions of how decision-making authority is allocated among different potential policy processes.
Learning to live with change
The need to be responsive to evolving conditions places constantly changing demands on policy and decision-making structures. Maintaining effectiveness requires an ongoing effort to facilitate and accelerate learning, and to build capacity to put that learning into practice.
The Arctic Council has been successful in learning and adapting to new knowledge regarding many issues, yet the need for integration of new knowledge across the expertise of the individual Working Groups remains a difficult challenge, particularly where issues are closely linked to political goals.
For dealing with environmental challenges that extend across scales, it is increasingly important that governance bodies develop the capacity to continually reassess their own role in engaging with the challenges and opportunities at hand and the activities of other governance bodies and actors.
Building Resilience for Responding to Change
Building capacity to adapt to and shape change
The key characteristics of resilience and the capacity to effectively respond to change – adaptive and transformative capacity – can be identified, evaluated and measured. Monitoring these elements is an important strategy for monitoring resilience, and how policy choices may strengthen or undermine it.
Individuals, communities and organizations may possess some of the prerequisites for adaptive capacity, yet still not be able to activate them due to critical gaps in others. These gaps become the “weak links” in the chain.
The Arctic Council already plays an important role in enhancing some elements of adaptive and transformative capacity, and there are additional areas where it could play an important role, thus building resilience of communities and peoples of the North.
Building resilience in the Arctic: From theory to practice
The Arctic Council can build upon its activities that strengthen resilience, and ensure that resilience monitoring, policies and practices take an integrated social-ecological approach. Deeper and more frequent integration of social and ecological knowledge and practices would improve the ability of the Arctic Council and other Arctic actors to build resilience.
The Arctic Council is already engaged in a variety of activities that strengthen resilience, but many are segregated by discipline. It is critical to build on and integrate existing programmes to provide a more holistic perspective on change. That requires monitoring and studying coupled social-ecological system dynamics, and making findings from that work available in ways that inform policy-making.
Building Arctic resilience requires goal-oriented collaboration, using regional processes to bring people together to tackle well-defined problems. These collaborations need to link global, national and local activities in ways that bridge across the diversity of practices, knowledge and cultures in the Arctic.
Successful collaboration requires innovation and meaningful engagement of the full range of Arctic stakeholders. Participatory scenarios analysis, use of simulation modelling, and self-assessments of resilience are examples of useful approaches. Putting resilience thinking into practice requires clearly linking those activities to policy-making.