The future of the Arctic

In September 2012, Arctic sea ice cover declined to a record low, over 3 million square kilometers below the long-term average for the month. Photo: IIASA Newsletter

IIASA researchers and Finnish policymakers and scientists met in May to outline a new research agenda addressing the challenges facing the Arctic region.

The seminar, jointly organized by IIASA, The Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, and the Academy of Finland, brought together stakeholders to share views, discuss and clarify the kind of Arctic research that is most needed to help guide the region through an uncertain future. Prof Markku Kulmala took part in the meeting, giving a Finnish view on climate change issues. Other speakers included Prof Pavel Kabat, Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis IIASA, Austria; Ambassador Hannu Halinen, Arctic Affairs at the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs; Minister Counsellor, Deputy Head of Mission, Ulrik Tideström, Embassy of Sweden in Helsinki; Special Adviser Christine Daae Olseng, Coordinator for the Polar Research Programme, the Research Council of Norway; Senior Vice President and Chief Techology Officer Kari Knuutila, Outotec Oyj, Finland; Director Teija Tiilikainen, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Finland; and Dr., Researcher Seija Tuulentie, Finnish Forest Research Institute.

“The meeting was an important step in establishing a real, efficient and useful dialogue between policy makers and scientists. Our Division is involved in many such efforts because we find it is in the best interest of society in every respect”, says Prof Kulmala.

Climate change has hit the Arctic region harder than any location on Earth. Over the last 30 years, the sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean has declined by over 40% in summer, opening up new routes for shipping and making oil extraction and fishing more feasible in previously impassable waters. In the same time period, average temperatures have risen twice as fast in the Arctic as in lower latitudes. The resulting thawing of permafrost can undermine infrastructure, and the climate shifts may disrupt marine and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the cultures that depend on them.

These changes open up new economic opportunities for resource extraction, shipping, and tourism in Arctic countries, but also pose many new questions about how to guide sustainable economic development and avoid environmental damage.

IIASA researchers focus on many issues relevant to the Arctic, including energy resources, air quality, and fisheries. The Institute also integrates scientific analyses into the assessment of policy options and future scenarios, a function that could be vital in the rapidly changing region, which is becoming ever more important on the global economic and geopolitical stage.

The meeting was webcast. For more information, visit the Academy of Finland Web site:

Tanja Suni
Adapted from IIASA Newsletter, Issue 14, June 2013

Sulphur deposition causes a large‐scale growth decline in boreal forests in Eurasia

Map of sulphur depositions for the study sites in 1980. Adopted from Savva & Berninger (2010).

Human activity has altered climate, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and the concentrations of several pollutants over the last few decades. At the same time, short‐term reactions of tree growth to climatic variations have changed during the last few decades, for reasons that are poorly understood. However, the effects of the pollutants on growth of boreal forests in these remote areas have not been quantified, but even small changes in the productivity of boreal forest should have a large effect on the carbon balance.

The growth of Scots pine, the most important forest species in boreal Eurasia, has declined by about 17% or 0.0025 mm per year from the 1930s to the 1980s in northern Eurasia. We determined this by analysing 40 tree ring chronologies north of 60°N latitude and and factoring out the age and climate effects. Although the study sites were previously considered low‐pollution pristine environments, the growth decrease was significantly related to sulphur depositions. Additionally, we observed that the sulphur depositions rendered the Scots pine forests more sensitive to drought. Although the negative effects of local pollution on plant growth have been widely observed in the past, the long-term effects of sulphur emissions and its spread to ecosystems distant from the sources of pollution have never been previously documented at such a large scale.

These results are of fundamental importance for attempts to preserve the functioning of these forest ecosystems: sulphur deposition rates are still increasing in several regions of the world including the forested boreal areas of north-eastern China and eastern Russia. On the other hand, according to the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) model, sulphur deposition at 35 sites in boreal Eurasia has been decreasing with a rate ranging from 0.25 to 2.92 kg S ha-1 per every 5 years over the period 1980 to 2000. This decrease in sulphur deposition should slow down the growth decline in boreal Eurasia, but the rate of growth decline will depend upon the ability of trees to recover from sulphur deposition effects, and combination of other environmental factors, such as the frequency of droughts.

Yulia Savva* and Frank Berninger*°

*Departement des Sciences Biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
°Department of Forest Ecology, University of Helsinki

Savva, Y., and F. Berninger (2010), Sulphur deposition causes a large‐scale growth decline in boreal forests in Eurasia, Global Biogeochemical Cycles 24, GB3002, doi:10.1029/2009GB003749.




The added value of our Centre of Excellence to society


The FCoE has had a major input in land-atmosphere research on many levels and in various disciplines, such as the exchange of trace gases and aerosol particles between forests/lakes/wetlands and the atmosphere, micrometeorology, theoretical and empirical aerosol dynamics, and observations and modelling of all these in many different climatic zones from the tropics to the Arctic.

However, the effect of the FCoE does not end there; the research conducted in Kumpula and in Viikki contributes significantly to socioeconomic issues related to global sustainability and land-atmosphere-society interactions as well. Research programmes such as PEEX (Pan-Eurasian EXperiment), iLEAPS (Integrated Land-Ecosystems – Atmosphere Processes Study), and HENVI Forests and Climate Change concentrate on the effects of climate change on the environment and agriculture, forestry, energy consumption, urban planning, and extreme events. The FCoE is equipped to deal especially with questions such as sustainable managed environments and the mixed anthropogenic (sulphur and nitrogen) and biogenic (BVOCs) input to cloud and aerosol processes. The FCoE research is applied to socioeconomic issues also via the National Climate Panel chaired by Prof Kulmala; via the FCoE’s membership of the Forum of Environmental Information that produces scientific information for policy-making; and via Future Earth, the international initiative on global sustainability led by ICSU, ISSC, and UN. Yet another new avenue is opening this year, when the FCoE begins to steer the Finnish global change research towards global sustainability science co-designed by funders, scientists, and policy-makers: Prof Markku Kulmala has been elected to chair the new Finnish Global Change National Committee that will lead this development; Tanja Suni is also involved in the Committee as a Global Environmental Change programme expert.

As a major player in all these organisations, the FCoE will add value to the research conducted by its members also by advancing major global observation infrastructures such as the SMEAR and ICOS networks where the FCoE has a leading coordinative and research role; finally, the uniquely multidisciplinary composition of the group also allows a systems approach to land-atmosphere interactions from soil to vegetation and to atmospheric chemistry and cloud processes.

Tanja Suni
iLEAPS Executive Officer


Science for decision makers

IIASA is located in the Laxenburg Castle, former summer retreat of the Habsburgs imperial family outside Vienna, Austria.

One of the largest challenges in search for solutions for problems concerning climate, environment, or poverty, is to generate a fruitful communication between scientists and policy makers. Currently, I work in the MAG group (Mitigation of Air Pollution & Greenhouse Gases) at IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis), an institute specialising in this communication. How does this communication work? And why is IIASA heard (or is it)? In the following I list a few (possible) reasons for the important role IIASA has in the international policy arena. Note that these thoughts are mine, and they are based on my experiences only.

–        History and tradition. IIASA was founded in the middle of the Cold War, in 1972, on the initiative of US president Lyndon Johnson and USSR premier Aleksei Kosygin (the era and the participants may explain the obscure name of the institute). The goal of IIASA was to promote co-operation between East and West in interdisciplinary scientific problems too wide for national institutions to handle. After the Cold War, the co-operation was extended from the East-West axis towards global, now crossing the boundaries between the first and third world. This background gives IIASA a strong label of neutrality. As a result of this history, IIASA scientists visit Brussels regularly to report our results to EU decision-makers. Similarly, representatives of the EU member countries regularly visit IIASA to update their information on, for example, the countries’ energy production and consumption, industry, transport, related technological objectives and future development.

–        Continuous funding. More than half of IIASA funding comes from the NMOs (National Member Organizations, Finnish representative being the Academy of Finland), which typically receive most of their funding from the governments they represent. There are currently 20 NMOs, from all the continents, including the most important players (USA, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Australia). Of course, there are also NMOs that have stopped their contribution for supporting IIASA, but the typically five year long contracts are, I guess, relatively stable under the current economics.

–        Policy-friendliness. IIASA transforms its scientific results into dollars/euros and human lives. The main output of the MAG program, the GAINS emission model, for example, gives out not only the efficiency of the technologies for decreasing emissions, but also their price. Furthermore, it estimates how many human lives can be saved by paying that price. And even further, it can be set to optimize the abatements of different emissions (different in sources and pollutants) in order to achieve the maximal benefit for a certain cost. And the data is available to anyone, registration as a user is free of charge. Another example would be the ‘7 shocks and Finland’ –project, ended a year ago, which analysed how the Finnish national economy would survive the economic shock situations.

Can we learn something from IIASA to help our own research in Finland to have an influence on political decisions? Organisations with similar goals in Finland include SYKE (Finnish Environmental Institute), the new national Climate Panel (Ilmastopaneeli), and the Forum for Environmental Information (Ympäristötiedon foorumi), although the two latter do not conduct research of their own. Similarly to IIASA, these organisations have been at least partly founded by decision makers in order to aggregate information necessary for their decisions.

These organisations are necessary because the purely academic results that universities provide are often too exact or theoretical for basing political decisions on. Thus, in order to have political influence, I find researchers and other well informed agents should, firstly, support (by actively offering information and, possibly, some resources) institutions such as IIASA, SYKE, the Climate Panel and the Forum for Environmental Information which are currently responsible for refining the scientific results to a form applicable to policy. Secondly, already at university level, we should put effort in offering simplified enough versions of our results to the media and thus to have also the non-academic people to hear and understand them: if the journalists do not understand the press-releases, the results never reach the news.

Most importantly, both above points must be carried out continuously, even if results are not immediately observable: at that very moment when the majority of decision makers feel that change is necessary (and voters are ready for it), we should be able to offer updated and comprehensive knowledge on feasible options, on their effectiveness and price. I guess very few of the reports by IIASA lead to immediate decisions, but when some decisions suddenly are to be made, it is too late to start scanning through ACP, JGR or BER and discussing what could be suggested for an action.

Pauli Paasonen (Division of Atmospheric Sciences; Guest Research Scholar at IIASA)