Not often do books on polar science (or science in general) begin with a citation from Lewis Carroll's Alice's adventures in wonderland nor bring into play the metaphor of an imaginary being as a guide through their content. Perhaps even less often does one find a book whose author takes on the challenge of explaining the present state of knowledge about the Arctic environment –primarily its physical and chemical components– to a non-specialist audience, ranging from undergraduate students and researchers to policy makers, industry professionals and anyone concerned about the Arctic's fate.
David P. Stone certainly has the credentials to take up a challenge of this sort, with a PhD in oceanography and more than forty years of experience in the management of environmental research. Stone has been involved in circumpolar cooperation since 1989, firstly with the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and later with the Arctic Council. He served as Canada's delegate on the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) governing working group until 2004 and was the chair of AMAP between 1993 and 1997, in the early days when AMAP was setting up a circumpolar monitoring capacity and producing its first circumpolar assessment of the state of the Arctic environment. Stone also played an important role in works on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's (UNECE) Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) and then in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention on POPs. Finally, he was one of leading figures in the creation of the University of the Arctic. His life-long engagement in Arctic affairs gives him a good perspective from which to reflect upon the changes taking place in the natural environment of the region as well as some of the international community's responses to them.
The titular Arctic messenger is a phrase taken from one of the conferences organised by AMAP in 2011. In this book, however, the Arctic messenger is imagined as a living entity, ‘a harbinger (. . .) [with] omnipotent consciousness’ akin to ‘the Sumerian Utnapishtim or the biblical Methusaleh’ (page 11). This messenger can inform us about the state of the Arctic and warn the humankind of the lunacy of ignoring the consequences of Arctic environmental change. According to Stone, our increasing comprehension of Arctic environmental science enables us to listen to the messenger, yet the question posed at the beginning of the book concerns the extent to which we have heard (and understood) this harbinger.
In addition to introducing the reader to the Arctic messenger, Stone is very clear about what his volume is not. It is not a review of Arctic environmental science over that last four decades, nor is it a summary of more than twenty years of Arctic international cooperation. Instead, it is a personal selection of evidence illustrating Arctic change and some of the key developments that have expanded our knowledge about the state of the Arctic and the role it plays in the global ecosystem. The focus throughout the book is on the physical, chemical and toxicological aspects of the story - in particular persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury and climate change, as well as (to a lesser degree) radioactivity, acid rain and ozone depletion. The author addresses the issues of Arctic wildlife and indigenous cultures only in relation to the harmful impacts they experience as a result of human activities located at lower latitudes; however, in recognition of the limits of his own expertise, he explicitly leaves the full coverage of those themes to others.
The book consists of four main parts plus five appendices of climate and geophysical background information. The main parts of the book are preceded by the personal reflections concerning the author's path into Arctic research and international cooperation, interspersed with moments from his personal life - including insights into how the Arctic has been to him ‘a magic that has never weakened’ (page 5). The first part, including one short chapter on the titular Arctic messenger, provides a brief overview of Arctic environmental change and a summary of what follows. The second part is a short account of the beginnings of circumpolar international cooperation and is dedicated primarily to AMAP, a working group and a key element in the architecture of the Arctic Council, responsible for monitoring and assessment of the state of the Arctic environment.
After the two introductory sections the reader embarks on the main, more substantial part of the book, which consists of seven chapters dealing with the present state of knowledge on radioactivity, acidification and Arctic haze, ozone depletion, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals (including mercury), and climate change in the Arctic. Among those seven chapters two short ones, on the International Polar Years (IPYs) and changes in the conduct of marine science in the Arctic under the continuous emergence of new technologies, ‘provide the brain with a little rest’ (page 8) while going through more information laden sections of the book. Each of the five science chapters begins with the fundamentals, many of which take the reader back to secondary school physics and chemistry, so even those from different academic backgrounds (like the author of this review) can understand the mechanisms and processes altering the Arctic environment. The science chapters also tell the story of how scientists came to learn of the Arctic's environmental challenges and what the international political community has done (or not) to address them. Lastly, each chapter concludes with a useful summary of the main points to retain and a list of suggested further readings for those willing to go deeper into the covered topics.
The fourth part of the book includes two chapters and the epilogue in which Stone shares his thoughts on the utmost importance of education, training and Arctic research as well as the necessity of raising public awareness on the state of the Arctic environment. In the final chapter he seeks to answer the question he posed at the beginning of the volume: whether the Arctic messenger has been noticed. In the epilogue he offers an essential short series of prescriptions addressed to the Arctic Council, ‘to keep the Rovaniemi flame alive’ (page 300) (in a reference to the town in northern Finland where the AEPS was signed) and to act boldly in face of the greatest threat to both the Arctic and the global ecosystem - climate change.
As a whole, The changing Arctic environment. . .is a greatly informative and enjoyable book that succeeds in explaining complex physical and chemical processes in a manner understandable to the general public. Stone thus achieves the goal he set for himself: to help making accessible the knowledge of Arctic change and its global implications. Moreover, he has written a book that does not have to be read all at once; each of the science chapters stand on their own. The author even offers a handful of tips to the reader, such as ‘if a section is (. . .) interminably boring, my advice is to skip it until you land on something tastier’ (page 7–8). In the book, ‘tastier’ parts are easy to find, for example where Stone recalls his personal heroes and heroines –charismatic figures like Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Lars-Otto Reiersen or Robert Corell– whose impact on the Arctic collaborative developments cannot be overstated. This approach, as well as questions addressed directly to the reader, maintains a sense of contact with an author who genuinely cares about keeping his audience engaged and curious.
The sense of engagement is also a more general trait of this publication, revealing the author's passionate concern for the fate of the Arctic and the entire planet in the face of climate change. David P. Stone is as comfortable writing about the toxicology of persistent organic pollutants as he is in engaging our moral responsibility to combat threats to the Arctic environment - a tall order that not many are willing to take on. To conclude, The changing Arctic environment. . . is a highly commendable volume that brings Arctic environmental science closer to a non-specialised audience. It is also an excellent addition to a slowly growing body of titles that take readers back to the early days of international circumpolar collaboration and show the way that has been taken from there. These include Ice and water. Politics, peoples and the Arctic Council by John English, the autobiographical The right to be cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and IASC after 25 Years, the historical account of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC).
All four of these volumes, written from different perspectives, allow us to fully appreciate the by no means little achievements made to date. At present the open question is: What will the next stages of circumpolar cooperation look like? Which path will their evolution take? With David P. Stone's book, the reader receives in hand a wonderful guide to understanding the changes taking place in the Arctic environment as well as to lessons learnt from the past experience in how the international community can –and should– respond to them.