CHARTER – Towards a broader understanding of Arctic complexity

When you have a research project involving 21 research institutions across nine countries, it is complicated – even without the challenges of a global pandemic, which aside from wreaking havoc on human health and healthcare systems has been a disaster for field work and regular meetings.

But the challenges and choices facing nations, communities, and peoples in the Arctic are enormously complex, so such an approach is increasingly essential. CHARTER (Drivers and Feedbacks of Changes in Arctic Terrestrial Biodiversity) is a research project that hopes over the next four years to better understand the processes that have been driving rapid climate and land use changes in the Arctic. The project is funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 Programme and coordinated by the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland in Finland.

CHARTER works mainly in northern Europe and Northwest Russia. Changes in climate and land use affect Arctic biodiversity, snow cover, sea ice, and permafrost. This has knock-on consequences and feedbacks to Arctic regional climate. These changes are not merely of academic interest; they are especially felt by people working on the land such as reindeer herders.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the 2013/4 severe icing event on the world’s most productive reindeer herding region of Yamal in Northwest Russia, where it is estimated that Nenets reindeer herders lost at least 61,000 reindeer, perhaps as many as one fifth of all reindeer in that region. Some herding families lost all their reindeer and have reverted to fishing in order to remain in the tundra while they attempt to rebuild their herds before another such catastrophe may strike. Poor winter grazing conditions in winter 2019/20 led to the death of as many as 15,000 reindeer in Finland, which had large financial consequences for herders along with a substantially increased workload.

Reindeer are obviously an important species for herders and cultures that depend on them. Reindeer are also a key species in the Arctic; they have a strong effect on the functioning of the ecosystems. By managing the grazing, reindeer herding as a livelihood has the potential to affect even permafrost region temperatures and, through effects of grazing on vegetation, regional climate.

CHARTER wants to co-develop tools with Arctic communities to better adapt to climatic and biodiversity changes. The project will do this through joint data collection, analysis, and modeling. CHARTER will look backwards to build a short, medium and long-range look at biodiversity, meteorological, and snow and ice data. This will build out a picture of change throughout the Holocene period (the last 11,000 years). CHARTER will also take a more detailed look at these same changes and drivers over the last forty years.

CHARTER will also co-produce knowledge with herders and other practitioners and co-develop optional future pathways for the region. The aim is to develop climate modelling tools so that they better consider also the climate impacts of local livelihoods and related land cover changes. When climate scenarios up to 2050 also take into account relevant Arctic livelihoods, the strategies for adaptation are easier to co-develop. The ambition is that Arctic decision-making would better consider the actions by local communities and livelihoods. This would support gearing Arctic land management towards climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

Follow the project:
Twitter @CharterArctic
Instagram @arctic_charter

By Philip Burgess, Outreach Coordinator, University of Lapland

[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]