The string of lights sparkles behind the large glass windows, showcasing the elegant neo-classic walls in the courtyard of the BELvue museum, Brussels. It’s Monday 22nd of January, 6.30pm. After getting themselves a glass of wine or juice, the guests slowly settle into the chairs that have been prepared for them in one of the rooms housing the "Looking for the end of the world" exhibition. They are scientists, policy makers, members of funding agencies or representatives of the private sectors and they all came together to discuss the Arctic, a rising matter from both a scientific and geopolitical perspective. Organized by the Egmont Institute, BELSPO and APECS Belgium, the evening intended to reinforce the link between the different sectors and discuss future research priorities in the Arctic. It was divided into two panels and a number of posters were displayed to showcase the projects and polar topics studied by Belgian institutes and universities.
The first panel, moderated by Marie-Anne Coninsx (Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont Institute) aimed to establish the current state of affairs in the Arctic.
Asked how the Arctic influences Belgium, Chantal Roggeman, Policy Expert in International Climate Negotiations & Cooperation, explained that “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic”. Yet, she continues, little is really discussed about the Arctic per se during climate negotiations, because “it is impossible to go there to prevent it from melting”. What is discussed instead is how to reduce CO2 emissions. She also points out that the Belgian Presidency of the European Union for the next six months will be focusing around four axes: the circular economy, with the aim of reducing or eliminating the need for mining; resilience and adaptation, with the forthcoming publication of an EU climate risk assessment report; target 2040, the date by which the EU wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by 90%; and finally, the energy transition. Regarding this last axis, she highlights that the last IPCC report shows that we have the solutions and that there is enough capital to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, but that this capital does not reach the right places.
François Massonnet, Professor at the Earth and Climate Institute at UCLouvain, then takes the floor to explain what makes the Arctic so special. He says that its particular interest comes from the disproportion between the surface of that region (only 4% of the Earth's surface) and the impact it has on the rest of the world.
"Imagine the current situation as if you were opening a refrigerator: cold air escapes and disturbs the air outside, while the air inside warms up"
Like Chantal Roggeman, he too explains that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The melting of sea ice will lead to a rise in global sea level (not through its direct melting but due to the fact that upstream land ice is no longer held up by the sea ice and can accelerate into the oceans), but it will also disrupt global ocean circulation. Current estimates predict that there will be no sea ice left in the Arctic in summer within 20 years. Aside from the environmental issues that total loss of this sea ice will raise, this will also have geopolitical implications as the Arctic will become a new available playground. On top of that, the thawing of its permafrost will release gasses such as methane, and its changing environment will raise issues for Arctic local communities.
A positive note, however, is that the voices of these communities are better and better heard when discussing the Arctic, as was also highlighted by Niskua Igualikinya, Climate Research Coordinator at the Open Society Foundations and coming from an indigenous community herself. She was asked “What would inclusive policy-making look like in the Arctic?”. To that, she stressed that local indigenous communities should be involved in the discussions from the very beginning, highlighting that they can provide valuable knowledge as they have built a deep understanding of their environment with time. After these words, a hand is raised in the audience: “How can we build field capacities while avoiding fatigue from these communities, something that is now being observed in inclusive science in the Arctic?” According to Niskua Igualikinyia, this fatigue can be explained by past mistakes and the historical lack of involvement of indigenous Peoples. If they had been included from the beginning in various science projects or policy decisions, they would trust and understand their purpose better, and therefore be more motivated to contribute. Requests for their contributions are often felt like an after-thought.
Marianna Pinzone, post-doctoral researcher at ULiège and at the Norwegian Polar Institute as well as mentor at APECS Belgium, then replied to the question “Is the Arctic an endpoint or a source of global marine pollution? Can the Arctic still be considered as pristine, remote and isolated?”
“The Arctic is transforming from a sink of marine pollutants into a potential source”
She explained that there are three types of contaminants: legacy pollutants (PCBs, POPs, etc), which were banned 50 years ago but are still found in high quantities in the tissues of marine mammals, emerging pollutants (rare earth elements, pesticides, etc), whose use will increase in the coming years, but they are already found in tissues of polar marine mammals in higher quantities than in other areas of the world (by a process that is still widely unknown), and finally, pollutants derived from climate change due to, for example, the thawing of the permafrost. In that regard, the Arctic is not only a sink of pollutants anymore but is also becoming a source.
The second panel was oriented towards the necessity to increase funding to encourage Belgian science efforts in the Arctic. Valérie Trouet, Scientific Director of the Belgian Climate Centre, was the moderator.
The Deputy Head of Unit Healthy Oceans and Seas at DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission, Szilvia Nemeth, opened the discussion by highlighting that the EU is one the largest funders of polar research. To follow on that topic, Maaike Vancauwenberghe, Director of the Research and Infrastructure Department at the Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO), discussed the role of BELSPO to support research and make the link between research and policy. We fund research in support of science but also policy, she says. She takes this opportunity to announce that they are hoping to launch two new funding programs before the summer, one focused on projects with an impact on policy and another oriented towards bottom-up research, with a special focus on projects related to Belgian infrastructures.
For Bruno Delille, researcher in chemical oceanography at ULiège and mentor at APECS Belgium, the question was about what Belgium can bring to science in the Arctic. A question to which he replied by first underlining the strong historical involvement of Belgium in polar regions, both in the Antarctic with the first scientific expedition led by Adrien de Gerlache but also in the Arctic where, although it is less known, the Belgica also went. Aside from that, Belgium research can benefit from a strong expertise in polar modelling and marine science. In that regard, the new RV Belgica will definitely help the country become more credible in terms of Arctic research and have more weight on the international scene. For Eléonore du Bois d’Aische, PhD student at UCLouvain and ULiège, the creation of a European network of research stations and infrastructures in the Arctic could be an added-value to science, arguing that
“dependency on international support in fieldwork-based research makes our science fragile”
Aside from the new RV Belgica, Wieter Boone, head of the Marine Robotics Center at VLIZ and mentor at APECS Belgium, highlights that big computing capacities and marine robotics are also driving forces of Arctic science in Belgium. When asked what initiatives Belgium should take to achieve its objectives in the Arctic, he replied that there is a need for more support from policy makers, a more anticipated planning of the RV Belgica as well as a need to build an Arctic science community. High quality science can only be achieved with strong support from the policy world.
In fact, that politics have an Arctic mindset is also of interest for the industries, as discussed by Pieter-Jan Provoost, Club Manager Energy at Agoria. For him, the Arctic is a growing focus for the Belgian manufacturing industry because it opens new opportunities to innovate in harsh conditions, to produce green energy and to act as a source of materials.
The evening closed off with final words from Frank Pattyn, Professor of glaciology at the ULB and President of BNCAR, who stressed that
“the future of the Arctic are the young minds in the room, and in the country”
He explained how training and retaining brilliant polar researchers should be one of the top priorities for Arctic science policy in Belgium.
With Belgium joining the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) in 2022 as the 24th IASC member country, we hope to lay the foundations and grow the Arctic community in our country.
The team & mentors of APECS Belgium were very well represented at the event
Written by Louise Delhaye