Finding the Arctic in the Swiss Alps

A look back at Henry’s time at the POLAR2018 conference

Davos is a pleasant, yet sleepy, town nestled in the mountains of Switzerland. The main street gives way to hillside pastures and cows with bells. Cable cars and ski lifts offer access to flower-filled alpine meadows and rocky peaks. In late June, Davos was also the site of the POLAR2018 conference, a merging of Arctic and Antarctic research that attracted one of the largest crowds ever at a polar science event. The streets and corridors of the conference center were filled with the languages and accents of every continent, and the program overflowed with a huge breadth of topics. My jet lag soon gave way to the thrill of hearing from leading scientists about their latest findings and insights.

There appears to be even more going on in the Arctic Ocean than many of us realized. Along the continental slopes, where the seafloor plummets from the shallows of the continental shelves to the depths of the ocean basins, scientists reported indications of a surprising abundance of life at depths of about 1,000 feet. Water circulation, nutrients and other factors combine to produce suitable habitat, and more work is needed to find out what exactly lives there and whether this zone of relative abundance circles the whole Arctic or is just found in a few places.

Sea ice is, of course, on everyone’s minds, and the retreat of sea ice may bring some surprising consequences. For one, ice-free continental slopes may see much more upwelling, bringing nutrient-rich deep waters up to sunlight, one of the most productive processes in the world’s oceans. There is no guarantee that upwelling in the Arctic will have the same biological result, but there is some evidence that zooplankton in the Arctic could find a productive niche at the ice edge, even as it retreats over deeper waters. So, there remains much to watch and much to learn.

As science tries to fill in these gaps in our understanding of the Arctic, scientists at the conference spoke positively about the new international Arctic fisheries agreement. Under that agreement, called for by over 2,000 scientists including many at the Davos conference, five Arctic coastal countries and five others with distant-water fishing capabilities have agreed that we should understand the Central Arctic Ocean ecosystem before we allow commercial fishing to begin. The agreement provides for research and monitoring for at least 16 years to gather data on this changing ecosystem. A key question for scientists is how to convey up-to-date information to the diplomats in charge of making decisions about when discussions about sustainable fishing might start. Despite sessions devoted to the science-policy connection, it remains unclear how this vital aspect of the agreement will be addressed.

I returned home reinvigorated by the time spent with colleagues new and old, from near and far. The Alps, it turns out, are a good backdrop for sharing knowledge about the poles and for stimulating new ideas to explore, which we can continue to share the next time we get together.

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