Date: April 29, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Changes in Arctic Systems Give Rise to Emerging Research Questions
WASHINGTON -- The climate, ecosystems, and communities of the Arctic are changing rapidly in complex ways that have implications throughout the region and, increasingly, around the globe. A new report from the National Research Council presents emerging research questions that come to the forefront because they address newly recognized phenomena, make use of new technology or avenues of accessibility, or build on recent research results and insights. The report also identifies the key resources and strategies for addressing emerging research questions, including interdisciplinary, international, interagency, and private-sector cooperation; improved operational and human capacity; long-term observations; and sustained investment in Arctic research.
“These changes in the Arctic are characteristic of what has been called the Anthropocene, the current age of rising human influence on the planet," said Stephanie Pfirman, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of environmental and applied sciences at Barnard College in New York City.
“The questions the committee posed emphasize the breadth of the challenges that global society faces in trying to respond effectively to changes that do not stay in the Arctic, but instead may affect us all,” added co-chair Henry Huntington, senior officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Eagle River, Alaska. “Research, too, needs to adapt to these changes. In addition to efforts already underway, we need new approaches and ideas to deal with new conditions,” he said.
The committee grouped the questions into five cross-cutting areas of research:
Evolving Arctic. The Arctic’s climate, ecosystems, and societies are changing rapidly, but the implications of these changes have yet to be studied in depth. The transition to a “new normal” of reduced ice and snow cover will have cascading impacts and Arctic communities are changing in the political realm as indigenous people achieve greater autonomy in some regions.
Hidden Arctic. In the past, many parts of the Arctic have been inaccessible, but the loss of sea ice and glaciers, thawing permafrost, and technological advances now allow research in different fields, geographical areas, and seasons. This creates opportunities to discover what was previously unknowable as well as an urgency to study geological features and cultural phenomena that may be lost as the Arctic changes.
Connected Arctic. The Arctic is connected to the rest of the world by atmospheric and ocean circulation, species migrations, and societal interactions. Climatic connections may have far-reaching implications for weather patterns, sea-level rise, ocean circulation, and species interactions around the globe, while local communities can inform and be influenced by societies outside the Arctic.
Managed Arctic. Although humans have shaped the Arctic and made use of its resources for millennia, both national and international interest is growing in Arctic fossil fuel deposits, minerals, fisheries, and tourism. Research on topics such as urbanization, international relations, and industrial and technological development is essential to understand the drivers of change and their implications.
Undetermined Arctic. While it’s impossible to know what research needs may arise in the future, the report highlights the need to be prepared to detect and respond to the unexpected. Leaving room for new ideas requires research to better assess new topics, long-term observations to identify changes and surprises without delay, and flexibility in funding to move quickly when a significant event occurs.
“A continued commitment to studying what exists, what is emerging, and what awaits us in the Arctic is essential, as is fostering a sense of shared purpose to manage change to the best of our abilities,” Huntington said.
The ability to address these and future emerging research questions requires cooperation among research disciplines, agencies, and the private sector, as well as between researchers and decision makers, the report says. Improved collaboration on both the funding and logistics of doing international research is also needed. Currently, most research is initiated by individuals or small groups, with few resources devoted to larger-scale synthesis studies.
Long-term observational data are essential for putting research findings into context, but there are insufficient long-term efforts underway and a general lack of infrastructure across the region, the report finds. The breadth and complexity of Arctic systems requires that observation efforts be coordinated and shared among international partners, government agencies, industry, individual scientists, and communities. Furthermore, much remains to be done to coordinate management, preservation, and access to data.
The report also highlights the importance of building human research capacity, through training of the next generation of scientists as well as meaningful engagement with Arctic communities. Large-scale development of data management and communications infrastructure can help scientists capture the results of community research efforts and connect with communities as they plan, conduct, and disseminate the results of their work. The report says that communities themselves need to determine how they want to be engaged.
The ability to act on Arctic issues requires insight from both basic and applied research, the report says, but rather than debating the optimal balance between fundamental and problem-oriented research, it would be more productive for researchers and decision makers to communicate effectively so that research results can be used where possible to find appropriate paths for action.
“Science can better contribute to decision making when stakeholders and researchers work with each other at all phases of the research process,” Pfirman said.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, and Smithsonian Institution. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A committee roster follows.
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Report in Brief
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Polar Research Board
Committee on Emerging Research Questions in the Arctic
Henry P. Huntington (co-chair)
Pew Environment Group
Pew Charitable Trusts
Eagle River, Alaska
Stephanie Pfirman (co-chair)
Professor and Chair
Department of Environmental Science
Barnard College and Columbia University
New York City
Department of Biology
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, Mass.
Principal Investigator and Adjunct Assistant Professor
Michigan Technical Research Institute
Michigan Technological University
Jennifer A. Francis
Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences
New Brunswick, N.J.
Sven D. Haakanson
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington
Department of Earth Sciences
Department of Wildlife Management
North Slope Borough
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alberta
Larry D. Hinzman
International Arctic Research Center
University of Alaska
Amanda H. Lynch
Department of Geological Sciences
A. Michael Macrander
Gifford H. Miller
Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research
University of Colorado
Ocean Networks Canada
University of Victoria
Victoria, British Columbia
Ellen S. Mosley-Thompson*
Department of Geography, and
Senior Research Scientist
Byrd Polar Research Center
Ohio State University
Samuel B. Mukasa
Eric J. Essene Professor of Geochemistry and Dean
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
University of New Hampshire
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
Institute of Marine Science
University of Alaska