Introduction to Scenarios of the Future Arctic

Preparing for the future, any future, is perhaps the most challenging task faced by societies in the current era of rapid environmental change. In April 2018, the Arctic Futures Workshop assembled experts primarily from the sectors of government, natural and social sciences, and public service. The purpose of the workshop was for these experts to jointly exchange perspectives and produce plausible scenarios of a future Arctic, in part to inform the Arctic Futures 2050 Conference. Here, we introduce the concept, process, and usefulness of creating scenarios and provide summaries of seven of the different illustrative scenarios determined by the Arctic Futures Workshop. In-depth reports on scenarios methodology and results are found on the workshop products webpage here.

Below we summarize seven of the future scenarios resulting from the Arctic Futures Workshop. Each summary gives highlights from a longer scenarios narrative report, and is designed to broaden the view of possible futures for the decision maker, scientist and knowledge holder, and citizen. Such broader views in turn will stimulate and strengthen the dialogue between those that create knowledge and those that must make decisions given the best available information, which is the main purpose of the Arctic Futures 2050 Conference.

Scenarios are stories of possible futures. Producing scenarios begins with experts providing multiple, contrasting, and alternative pictures of the future. Scenarios are used in business as a formal planning tool, and we all use them informally in preparing for a meeting or planning a trip where the exact outcome may vary. However, scenarios are not forecasts or predictions of what is to come, or of what we would like to happen. Instead, they help a person or community to simultaneously consider many different factors likely important in shaping the future. For example, imagine walking into a long hallway full of doors, and behind each door a different possible future for the Arctic in 2050 exists. Each door represents a bundle of Key Factors determined as important by the experts, such as, in the case of the Arctic, the price of oil, greenhouse gas emissions, Indigenous legal status, rates of ice melt, and so on. Each Key Factor, for example, the economy, will have multiple possible Future Projections. For the example of the economy one can imagine a hot economy with low unemployment, or a sluggish economy with less market activity or a depression with high unemployment and a poor business environment. In any individual scenario, the future behind any one door is formed by a particular combination of the Future Projections for the Key Factors. Using the examples above, one could imagine a hot economy with high greenhouse gas emissions, high rates of ice melt, and increasing Indigenous self-determination. And, because we have incomplete knowledge of any given scenario, the most powerful approach is to consider multiple scenarios of the future. In other words, since we are unsure which “door” we will walk through in 2050, we must explore various doors and ask “…what if” in order to be prepared for the circumstances we may face. What if we walk through this door, or that one?

Not all imaginable doors to the future make sense. Once the Key Factors that matter to are decided and the Future Projections of them determined, the next step is to evaluate the plausibility and consistency of the many possible outcomes to determine the most “robust” scenarios. First, we determine if a future projection could happen, or is plausible; it does not matter if it is desirable. For example, a Future Projection of zero access to markets or zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not plausible, but the collapse of the market for fossil fuels, while unlikely, is plausible. In our project, each workshop participant independently ranked how plausible each Future Projection of each Key Factor was for 2050. Next, participants decided how consistent each Future Projection was with every other Future Projection. For example, because more warming melts more ice, higher ocean temperature with higher ocean ice cover is mutually exclusive, and is thus ranked as least consistent. On the other hand, increased levels of Indigenous autonomy could be highly consistent with resilient rural communities. Finally, the consistency and plausibility scores are combined to determine the robustness of each scenario. A robust scenario is both plausible and consistent, but not necessarily the most plausible or the most consistent. In the end, there is no single, ‘most likely’ future, rather there are multiple future scenarios that can be evaluated by anyone based on plausibility, consistency, or both as merged in the score of robustness. The goal is not to predict the single future scenario that is most likely, it is to deeply and effectively explore future possibilities to prepare now for what will be behind whichever door we have created by 2050.

Scenarios create a suite of possibilities of what the world could look like in the future, and therefore they help guide decision-making in the near-term to reduce risk in various future activities. Scenarios are useful for decision makers when uncertainty is high and when multiple futures are both possible and substantially different. A real strength of scenarios is that different people tell different stories based on their perceptions of how key factors operate in their livelihoods, jurisdictions, economic sectors, or research programs. Scenarios are thus inherently inclusive and multi-perspectival, which is required to connect information and knowledge to the planning process today, and better prepare us to mitigate or adapt to whatever door opens in 2050.


Thinking about all this, can you guess from the snapshots of the seven scenarios below which was the most robust? Consistent? Plausible? (see the "Answer Key" at the bottom of this page)

As you read through these scenarios we encourage you to consider two questions:

  1. What would you want to know from the YOU living in any one of these future scenarios?
  2. Given any of the future scenarios you might find yourself in (1-7), what do you need today to prepare to respond to this Arctic future?

You can share your responses and other reactions to these scenarios by emailing Andrea Fisher at afisher13@alaska.edu. Responses may be used to help conference organizers in planning the Arctic Futures 2050 conference and may be discussed in post-conference products (with names and personal information redacted).

Scenario #1: An Insecure Arctic in a Warmer World with High Resource Demand

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase 13°C (23.4°F) in fall months and 5°C (9°F) in spring months, consistent with the RCP 8.5 emissions forcing.
Environmental Changes: Warmer oceans with significant freshwater input, greening on land, more fires, and changes to species composition, health, and migration patterns.
Global Trends: Regional and pan-Arctic cooperation is limited. Eager nations and multinational companies expand exploitation efforts.
Arctic Communities: Indigenous peoples lose rights or have less decision-making power. Some Arctic communities adapt, develop, and innovate, while other communities are less successful.
Science: Public science funding is limited, and the foundations of publicly accessible science erode.

Scenario #2: An Arctic with Incremental Changes to Social Trends and Transformative Atmospheric and Marine Changes

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase more than 10°C (18°F) in fall months and 5°C (9°F) in spring months, with global temperatures on track to increase 2.2°C (4°F) by 2100.
Environmental Changes: Sea ice is thin in winter and nearly absent in summer in the Arctic Ocean, leading to dramatic ecosystem shifts. Rapid melting of Arctic land ice freshens inland and ocean waters, and plant productivity on land increases.
Global Trends: There is a decrease in international engagement. Global economic instability affects Arctic nations, and resource extraction intensifies by private investment from outside the region.
Arctic Communities: Progress for Indigenous rights occurs largely at the local level. A public-private health care system is in place, but disproportionately benefits the wealthy.
Science: The foundations of publicly accessible science decrease, and scientists become employed more by private institutions.

Scenario #3: Lowered Emissions and Harmonious Regional and Global Relations

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase approximately 2-3°C (4-5°F), while global temperatures increase approximately 1°C (1.8°F) by 2100. There is a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Environmental Changes: Lowered emissions significantly slows cryosphere decline and the pace of terrestrial change. The ocean absorbs the heat from warming during the first half of the century, enhancing sea ice melt and coastal erosion.
Global Trends: Highly collaborative international partnerships exist between Arctic and non-Arctic nations. The Arctic Council nations create a multilateral treaty to encourage pan-Arctic cooperation, as well as an Arctic Development Bank to remediate externalities of development and to conserve species and territories.
Arctic Communities: The role of Permanent Participants of Arctic governance has increased, and across the Arctic there is greater self-determination for Indigenous peoples.
Science: Decades of coordinated scientific research in the Arctic improves system-level understanding of climate change. Along with western science, knowledge acquisition and dissemination include more local and traditional knowledge.

Scenario #4: Late Century Decline in Emissions and Little Change in Governance Systems

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase more than 7°C (12.6°F) in fall months and 3°C (5.4°F) in spring months, while global temperatures increase 2.2°C (4°F) by 2100.
Environmental Changes: Rapid increases in cryosphere melt and thaw are consistent with the RCP 6.0 emissions forcing in which greenhouse gas emissions are on track to peak around 2080.
Global Trends: There is weak international security and Arctic nation relationships are strained; however, regional collaboration and global policy sees minimal change. Private investment from outside the region intensifies resources extraction.
Arctic Communities: National and subnational governments decrease spending on maintaining Arctic populations, and any progress for Indigenous rights occurs largely at the local level.
Science: In scientific fields, knowledge acquisition and dissemination include more local and traditional knowledge.

Scenario #5: Low Emissions and an Isolated but Internally Collaborative Arctic

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase 2-3°C (4-5°F), while global temperatures are on track to increase by 1°C (1.8°F) by 2100. There is a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Environmental Changes: Early decline in emissions significantly slows cryosphere decline and the pace of terrestrial change. The ocean absorbs the heat from warming during the first half of the century, enhancing sea ice melt and coastal erosion.
Global Trends: Global policy considers Arctic concerns, yet international collaboration is limited to practical issues of common interest. The Arctic region collaborates and seeks security through isolation, largely denying non-Arctic states resource development opportunities and charging for use of Arctic transportation routes. An Arctic Development Bank is created with priority given to projects regarding sustainability and long-term benefit to the region.
Arctic Communities: There is a trend toward Arctic nations returning the governance of specific territory to Indigenous peoples, creating Autonomous Indigenous Territories (AITs). The Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council gain status as nations. Capacity for adaptation rises and delivers self-reliance in many remote communities.
Science: The science community responds to budget cuts and lack of trust from governmental actors by delivering their findings more directly to the public. There is an increase in citizen-science programs.

Scenario #6: Emissions Reduced in an Insecure World and Depopulating Arctic

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase 2-3°C (4-5°F), while global temperatures are on track to increase 1°C (1.8°F) by 2100. There is a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Environmental Changes: Early decline in greenhouse gas emissions significantly slows cryosphere decline and the pace of marine and terrestrial change later in the century.
Global Trends: There is less engagement among nations, and global instability in governance is the norm. Long-term expectations for growth of shipping and non-renewable extractive industries have not been met. The energy fortunes of most Arctic settlements are now tied to a dying industry.
Arctic Communities: The vibrancy of the Arctic’s Indigenous cultures and languages is in peril with reduced populations. Health services are generally inadequate in the face of climate sensitive diseases, and investment, education, and sustainability measures are under-realized.
Science: The acceptance of geoengineering creates tension amongst some scientists.

Scenario #7: Significant Global Collaboration for Adaptation to Rising Emissions

Climate: Arctic temperatures increase 13°C (23.4°F) in fall months and 5°C (9°F) in spring months, consistent with RCP 8.5 greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental Changes: Loss of reflective ice and snow and changes in atmospheric dynamics amplify temperature changes. Other changes include warmer oceans with significant freshwater input, and on land there is greening, more fires, and changes to species composition, health, and migration patterns.
Global Trends: Highly collaborative international partnerships exist between Arctic and non-Arctic nations. An increase in oil and gas and other material extraction expands infrastructure for transportation and communication abilities. Extractive activities are mainly done by private investors from outside the region.
Arctic Communities: Arctic nations increase self-determination in land and coastal management for many Arctic Indigenous peoples. The vibrancy of the Arctic’s Indigenous cultures and languages is in peril, as many high north populations dwindle. Ungulate diseases, as well as diseases affecting canines and marine mammals, rapidly spread.
Science: Decades of coordinated scientific research in the Arctic help to improve system-level understanding of climate change and its impacts as well as help to facilitate adaptation. Communication of science to decision-makers and stakeholders improves, and there is more reliance on science.

ANSWER KEY

From the full workshop report, Scenario #1 was the most consistent, Scenario #2 was the most robust (based on high internal consistency and high plausibility), and Scenario #4 was the most plausible; however, the four remaining scenarios are still relevant and within the realm of plausible futures.