Date:  April 29, 2014




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  A committee roster follows.




Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer

Chelsea Dickson, Media Associate

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Additional resources:

Report in Brief



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Division on Earth and Life Studies

Polar Research Board


Committee on Emerging Research Questions in the Arctic




Henry P. Huntington (co-chair)

Science Director

Arctic Program

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


Carin Ashjian

Senior Scientist

Department of Biology

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole, Mass.


Laura Bourgeau-Chavez

Principal Investigator and Adjunct Assistant Professor

Michigan Technical Research Institute

Michigan Technological University

Ann Arbor


Jennifer A. Francis

Research Professor

Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, N.J.


Sven D. Haakanson

Associate Professor

Department of Anthropology

University of Washington



Robert Hawley

Assistant Professor

Department of Earth Sciences

Dartmouth College

Hanover, N.H.


Taqulik Hepa


Department of Wildlife Management

North Slope Borough

Barrow, Alaska


David Hik


Department of Biological Sciences

University of Alberta



Larry D. Hinzman


International Arctic Research Center

University of Alaska



Amanda H. Lynch


Department of Geological Sciences

Brown University

Providence, R.I.


A. Michael Macrander

Chief Scientist

Shell Alaska



Gifford H. Miller


Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research

University of Colorado



Kate Moran


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



Tom Weingartner


School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

Institute of Marine Science

University of Alaska




Maggie Walser

Co-Study Director


Lauren Brown

Co-Study Director



* Member, National Academy of Sciences