Sustainable Arctic Futures: A Regional and Global Challenge

Contributing to the Sustainable Development of Arctic Regions

Temperatures in the Arctic are currently rising twice as fast as in most other regions on the planet, a phenomenon most strikingly evidenced by the decreasing extent and volume of Arctic sea ice over the last decades. At the end of summer 2012, the extent of Arctic sea ice was the lowest since satellite measurements began: a mere 3.41 million km2, which is 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average. Since then, summertime sea ice in the Arctic has remained at a historically very low level. The processes currently under way in the Arctic are embedded in climate, economic, legal and social systems and processes that reach far beyond the Arctic Circle.

The global dimensions of Arctic change

The rapid climate change in the Arctic is attributed largely to greenhouse gas emissions that result from consumption patterns in industrialised, developed countries beyond the Arctic’s southern borders. In turn, climate change in the Arctic has various direct impacts on and implications for non-Arctic regions, such as sea-level rise in the case of accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the possibility of an accelerated release of methane into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost soils.

After CO2, the largest contributors to climate change in the Arctic are short-lived climate-forcing pollutants (SLCPs), particularly black carbon (BC), which is formed by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass. BC has the potential to accelerate ice melting by darkening bright surfaces, which leads to an increase in the absorption of sunlight (albedo effect). Emissions from industrialised centres in Europe, North America and Asia are currently by far the largest source of BC in the Arctic. And here the main culprits are emissions from diesel engines in Europe and North America and from industrial coal and residential fuel-burning in Asia.

Economics and Resources

  • Warming Arctic frees up resources for southern markets
  • Utilisation of Arctic resources further drives global warming
  • Arctic competes with other resource-rich regions
  • Role of international financial-investors and (re)insurers
  • Trans-Arctic shipping connects Atlantic and Pacific Oceans


  • Political climate and geopolitical tensions affect the Arctic, e.g. Ukraine crisis


  • Non-Arctic international and national governance processes affect the Arctic, e.g. UNCLOS, IMO
  • Non-Arctic stakeholders engage in Arctic governance regimes, e.g. the Arctic Council


  • Non-Arctic, industrialised regions produce pollutants that end up in the Arctic
  • Increasing inner-Arctic economic activity possibly leads to Arctic emissions travelling south

Weather, climate, sea ice

  • Decreasing surface albedo leads to further warming
  • Thawing permafrost leads to release of methane and CO2
  • Less ice leads to more wave activity, breaking up more ice
  • Less Arctic sea ice and Arctic-amplification affect weather patterns in mid-latitudes
  • Melting Greenland ice sheet affects sea levels

Moreover, as offshore oil and gas exploration and shipping become technologically and economically feasible in the Arctic, significant increases in BC emissions that originate in the Arctic can be expected. This is due to the expansion of mining, energy and transport activities into newly accessible areas that were previously ice-bound – especially along the Russian Arctic coast, but also in Greenlandic and North American Arctic areas. In addition to having potentially severe health and climatic effects in the Arctic itself, these emissions could also reach lower latitudes, thereby aggravating the environmental health risks posed by air pollution in Europe, too.

But the climate is not the only factor that links Arctic and non-Arctic regions. Attempts to exploit the Arctic’s economic potential – through mining, developing offshore oil and gas resources on the continental shelves of Arctic coastal states, using shipping routes through Arctic waters, and tapping into potential new fishing grounds – are largely driven by economic demand and investments from outside the Arctic. The development of global commodity prices for minerals and hydrocarbons, as well as the risk assessments and premiums offered by the (re-)insurance sector, classification societies and international financial investors are further ‘outer-Arctic’ factors that are sure to have a bearing on future Arctic developments.

These Arctic-global teleconnections show that the Arctic is inextricably linked to systems and processes that reach far beyond the Arctic Circle. That is why it is essential to have a thorough understanding of these interconnections on various scales (local, national, regional, international) and in different timeframes in order to equip decision-makers and affected stake- and rights-holders with the necessary knowledge to address current and future challenges for achieving sustainable Arctic futures. To contribute to finding such sustainable pathways for Arctic regions, the IASS is building constructive relationships between Arctic stakeholders in and beyond the Arctic who influence or are affected by the region’s ongoing transformation. And in order to increase their capacity for informed planning for sustainable Arctic futures, the IASS focuses on Arctic governance, specifically on the missing links between Arctic-specific institutions (especially the Arctic Council) and Arctic-relevant institutions. The latter are often broader regional and international organisational structures, such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (the ‘OSPAR Convention’) as well as various Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) and conventions under the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

A changing Arctic raises a number of interrelated questions:

  • How will the use of Arctic resources (especially from mining and offshore oil and gas production) and other economic activities such as shipping and fishing change the Arctic region?
  • How will SLCPs (especially black carbon) and greenhouse gas emissions influence the Arctic environment, particularly with regard to sea-ice development?
  • What are the likely impacts of ongoing transformations on Arctic communities and the environment?
  • What can be done to make the processes of interaction and decision-making among different stakeholders on multiple scales (state, non-state, local, regional, national, international) more effective in transitioning to sustainable Arctic futures?

IASS research on Arctic transformations and sustainability

In order to address these and other questions, the IASS is contributing to the international debate in various ways, for example, by organising workshops, early-career events such as the Potsdam Summer School, and research projects with multiple national and international partners. The framework of IASS Arctic research is provided by the SMART research project, which stands for “Sustainable Modes of Arctic Resource-driven Transformations” (click here for a PDF of above illustration). Work on SMART is being carried out by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the social and natural sciences, including law, economics, political science, sociology, atmospheric physics and chemistry. SMART hopes to contribute to the development of transformative pathways towards sustainable human-nature interactions in the Arctic and in the multi-faceted interplay between Arctic and non-Arctic regions. The SMART project is unique in its aim to (1) understand its research process as a tool-building, collaborative process with stakeholders to address societally relevant issues and (2) disclose and elucidate the tightening connections between the Arctic and regional and global economic, technological, legal and political processes. The core questions addressed by SMART are:

  • How can transformations towards sustainability be envisioned, designed and implemented with the fair, transparent and informed participation of stakeholders?
  • What influences do Arctic stake- and rights-holders and shareholders from both within and outside the Arctic have, and how might they be affected in each of the plausible future scenarios?
  • What economic and political factors play a role in plausible scenarios for the economic, social and ecological development of the Arctic now and in the near future?
  • What factors determine the success or failure of stakeholder collaboration to develop and use scenarios for decision-making at multiple governance levels?

Against this background, SMART researchers have made successful funding applications and engaged in international project development:

  • The IASS is a partner in the international “ArcticABC project: Arctic Ocean ecosystems – Applied technology, Biological interactions and Consequences in an era of abrupt climate change” (IASS contact: Kathrin Keil).
  • Carolina Cavazos-Guerra and Kathrin Keil from the SMART team were guest researchers at the Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (NIERSC) in St. Petersburg in August and September 2014.
  • The SMART project was awarded a Fast Track Initiative (FTI)/Future Earth seed funding grant together with partners in Canada and the United States to develop the “ArcticSTAR Initiative: Solution-oriented, Transdisciplinary Research for a Sustainable Arctic” in June 2014.
  • In September 2014, the SMART project was awarded seed funding from the Transformations to Sustainability Programme of the International Social Science Council (ISSC) to develop the STARCTIC (Social Transformation Research Group on Arctic Sustainability) research proposal together with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
  • Together with the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the Jade University of Applied Sciences, SMART researchers are developing the GRASP research project proposal (“Governance of Resources for Arctic Sustainable Policy and Practice”). GRASP strives to support decision-making and governance processes towards the sustainable development of the Arctic through the participation of civil society actors. Experts from various disciplines in the natural and social sciences will develop possible scenarios for Artic development together with civil society actors, thereby contributing to better decision-making processes.

Photo: Dogsled in Svalbard, Norway, (c) Ida Jahr


Dr Kathrin Stephen


Scientific Project Leader

Prof. Dr Tim Butler


Project Leader

Silke Niehoff


Project Scientist

Marianne Pascale Bartels


Project Scientist

Dr. Carolina Cavazos-Guerra


Research Fellow

Vilena Valeeva


Project Scientist

Previous events


Dr Kathrin Keil from the IASS chaired two panels at the Arctic Futures Symposium in Brussels on 17 and 18 November 2015:

Key note panel on "Business Development in Arctic Communities" and

Panel on “Integrating Arctic Council observers into the work of the Arctic Council"

Link to conference website


Together with the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) and the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, IASS researchers organised a panel for the Third Arctic Circle Conference, which took place in Reykjavik, Iceland. The panel is titled “Arctic natural resources: collaborative approaches to sustainability challenges".

Link to conference website

Link to IASS blog post about event


Dr Kathrin Keil from IASS gave a talk on "Arctic Hydrocarbon Resources in a Global Market Perspective & Sustainability and Arctic Resources" during a study trip of the Oil and Gas Department of the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy at the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin.


The sixth Arctic Dialogue took place at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in Berlin on 1 September 2015. Among other presentations on Arctic research projects, priorities and cooperation, Dr Kathrin Keil presented the GRASP (Governance of Resources for Arctic Sustainable Policy and Practice) research project proposal, a joint inititiave by the IASS, Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), and the Jade University of Applied Sciences.


Dr Kathrin Keil from the IASS and Sebastian Knecht from the Freie Universität Berlin are editing the book Beyond Geopolitics – Arctic Governance in Global Perspective, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. The editors organised a workshop on 20 and 21 May 2015 at the IASS to discuss the book chapters with the authors and invited experts.


The Alfred Wegener Institute, the IASS and the Jade University of Applied Sciences organised a stakeholder workshop at the IASS in Potsdam on 11 and 12 May 2015 to discuss their joint research project proposal GRASP – Governance of Resources for Arctic Sustainable Policy and Practice – with experts and stakeholders.


SMART researchers were involved in the ICARP III (Third International Conference on Arctic Research Planning) process and conference, which took place in Japan from 27 to 30 April 2015. Dr Kathrin Keil participated in a workshop to draft a White Paper on “Understanding Arctic Sustainability”, and Dr Carolina Cavazos-Guerra chaired the session on “Advances in transdisciplinary Arctic research: progress on building collaborative agendas for research supporting solutions for sustainability”.


Together with the Embassy of Canada, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), and the Ecologic Institute, the IASS is organising the Arctic Discussion Series, a series of Arctic-related events over the course of 2014 and 2015. On 14 April 2015, the IASS organised an event on “Achievements and Ways Ahead for Advancing Arctic Sustainability – The Canadian and US Chairmanships of the Arctic Council (2013–2017)”.


As part of the Arctic Horizon 2030 workshop series, the IASS and the Global Climate Forum (GCF) organised a workshop in Moscow on “Changes in the Russian Arctic and Global-Local Feedback Processes” in cooperation with researchers from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO RAN) and the Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (NIERSC). At the workshop, researchers from various disciplines and representatives of civil society, government and local Arctic organisations discussed a range of issues in relation to the ongoing changes in the Russian Arctic.


The IASS is a partner in the recurring Arctic Dialogue together with the Alfred Wegener Institute and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The fifth Arctic Dialogue on 13 February 2015 was held at the IASS with a focus on governance and black carbon in the Arctic.


The 2014 Potsdam Summer School on “Arctic in the Anthropocene” was organised jointly by the IASS, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam – GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the University of Potsdam in partnership with the City of Potsdam. Over the course of two weeks, early-career scientists and young professionals from all around the world worked intensely on the question of how to shape sustainable futures in the Arctic and beyond.


Upcoming events


In cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute and the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources,  IASS is organising a Parliamentary Evening on Arctic research and politics in Berlin on 13 January 2016.

By invitation only

17.-22. April 2016

Dr. Kathrin Keil is co-convener of the session "Arctic ocean and cryosphere in rapid transition", which is part of the European Geosciences Union General Assembly (EGU 2016) conference in Vienna, Austria from 17- 22 April 2016.

We invite contributions with a strong relation to the Arctic Ocean and cryosphere under the following topics and beyond:

• Arctic sea ice dynamics and oceanography,
• Arctic land-ocean interactions including coastal permafrost dynamics,
• Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity,
• Arctic palaeoenvironmental archives including proxy development and calibration,
• Arctic law, shipping and exploration.

Link for further details and abstract submission


The Arctic Economy


Article by Kathrin Keil on “Arctic Economic Potential”, in "Arctic security matters", June 2015

Researchers Blog about the Arctic


Arctic Challenges

Radio interviews

SMART: Exploring the Sustainable Transformation of the Arctic


IASS research project: Sustainable Modes of Arctic Resource-driven Transformations


German Foreign Office Appoints IASS Arctic Expert

News item

In March 2015, Kathrin Keil joined the German observer delegation of the Arctic Council.

Striving for Sustainable Arctic Transformations


IASS Working Paper: Engaging Stakeholders in Inderdependent Arctic and Global Change

Arctic Circle 2015


Impressions from the Arctic Circle 2015 meeting by Marianne Pascale Flynn