Polar Regions Workstream

Update: February 12, 2016

ice-in-barrow-straitTwenty-one years ago, in the summer of 1994, a 57-foot fiberglass sailboat named Cloud Nine set sail, with captain Roger Swanson at the helm. Cloud Nine carried a crew of six, who were attempting to transit the fabled Northwest Passage from east to west. There was a tremendous amount of pack ice choking off all the routes through the Passage that summer, and the crew of Cloud Nine was forced to abandon the voyage and retreat out of the Arctic.

ice-free-arcticThirteen years later, in the summer of 2007, Cloud Nine returned to the Arctic for another east-to-west attempt. This time around, the crew of six discovered little to no ice in the Northwest Passage. To the astonishment of those on board and of those watching their transit, the nearly 7000-mile voyage took only 73 days, and Cloud Nine never touched one piece of ice.

We have to be willing to venture into that territory that lies beyond common practice and expertise, learn as we go and begin to play an active role in shaping how we care for what Pope Francis reminds us is “our common home”. We are climate explorers with the capacity to be spendthrifts or stewards; we can waste or rescue the natural systems that give us life as we know it. [Read the full article here…]

Update: January 24, 2016

While Winter Storm Jonas brings record snowfall, severe flooding, and non-emergency travel bans to much of the northeast of the United States, the North Pole is experiencing temperatures 55°F higher than normal for this time of year. There is a massive heat exchange going on, which is clearly observable in real time, between subtropical latitudes and the Arctic. Temperatures today are actually above freezing in parts of Svalbard, some of the northernmost land on Earth, and off the northeastern coast of Greenland, in the depth of winter.

Parts of the Arctic Ocean are hovering around freezing, with warmer wind and water coming north. The whirling dislocation of heat and cold between the Arctic and lower latitudes is more intense than normal, reaching further than normal, and is now being repeated year after year to the extent some scientists say this may be the “new normal” in a world of dislocated climate patterns. Extreme change in the Arctic is driving the intensity of storms that are battering the coasts of New York and New Jersey with major winter storm surges. The result is rough icy water pouring into low-lying town centers along the coast.


The Polar Regions anchor Earth’s climate system. The integrity of polar climate systems determines the degree to which climate stability at lower latitudes is a reliable expectation.

Entire climate patterns are dislocating, leaving some regions without much-needed precipitation, while pushing far more precipitation into regions where various climate patterns converge. So, we see persistent exceptional drought in California and persistent exceptional precipitation in New England, and some parts of Pakistan experience crippling drought, while others see entire towns and villages swept away in record floods.

This is also why the Polar Vortex (not a storm, but actually a circular wind current that normally stays in the Arctic and helps to keep the Arctic and sub-Arctic climates defined and separate) has been migrating south during the winter.

During the early months of 2015, much of North America was living inside an Arctic climate system that had dislocated to latitudes where it does not normally reside. What happens in the Arctic, or what doesn’t happen, affects the rest of the planet in ways that we cannot defend against or prepare for.

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising more than twice as fast as the global average, and feedbacks between the atmosphere and oceans are accelerating the pace of warming. In 2007, the first American vessel to transit the Northwest Passage, a small sailboat named Cloud Nine, traveled 7,000 miles without touching one piece of ice. Just 13 years earlier, the same vessel was turned back by impassable pack ice.

The Polar Regions are changing at a rate science suggests is without precedent in Earth’s history. This means global change will be more disruptive, more severe, and harder to slow or reverse.


The Polar Regions Workstream will report on the state of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, while tracking impacts on peace and security, ecological integrity, and results in the intergovernmental policy process.

Where possible, the Polar Regions Workstream will draw connections between specific policy action, conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, impacts and needs at lower latitudes, and geopolitical ramifications.