Once ice-bound, difficult to access, and largely ignored by the rest of the world—literally off the map in some projections—the Arctic is now front and center in the midst of many important questions facing the world today. Our daily weather, what we eat, and coastal flooding are all interconnected with the future of the Arctic. Looking within the Arctic, 2012 was an astounding year for Arctic change. The summer sea ice volume smashed previous records, losing approximately 75 percent of its value since 1980 and half of its areal coverage (Jeffries et al., 2013). In 2012 Greenland experienced the largest melt extent of the satellite era (the past 35 years), with melting occurring over 97 percent of the ice sheet’s surface, continuing a multidecadal trend of increasing summer melt and mass loss (Tedesco et al., 2013). Receding ice caps in Arctic Canada are now exposing land surfaces that had been continuously ice covered for more than 40,000 years (Miller et al., 2013). Dozens of Alaska villages face pressing threats from riverbank and coastal erosion as waterflow patterns change, sea ice retreats, storms increase, and sea level rises (GAO, 2003). Local and remote effects of Arctic sea ice decline on weather and climate are being explored (Vihma, 2014). All of these pose challenges for human response, from policy to practice. Better understanding can help improve these responses, if science and scientific results are communicated effectively to those in positions to apply them.
The Arctic can be defined in astronomical, cryospheric, biological, cultural, and political ways. None of these definitions are universally suitable. For the purposes of this report, which focuses on emerging research questions in the Arctic, we define the Arctic as the northern region where physical, biological, social, economic, political, and other changes are leading to the emergence of new characteristics, relationships, and systems. Specifically, we focus on the area where change is rapid and far reaching, overturning the status quo.
The changes taking place in the Arctic, from physical, biological, and social shifts driven by worldwide human activity to economic expansion and technological advances, are hallmarks of the Anthropocene epoch (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Revkin, 1992), in which human activity is a dominant force on the global environment. It seems appropriate, therefore, to characterize a report on emerging research questions as a response to the advent of the Anthropocene, whose causes are ultimately largely the same as those driving emerging research needs.
Many of these changes have been expected based on research conducted over the past several decades, including under the Study of Environmental ARctic CHange (SEARCH) and during the International Polar Year (IPY) of 2007-2009 (NRC, 2012a). Numerous existing questions remain unanswered, however, and they require continued research support, as the committee heard time and again from the scientific community. In this report, we reiterate some of those most frequently and fervently expressed, but our primary task is to highlight the new questions that have emerged in the wake of recent, and expectation of further, rapid Arctic change, as well as new capabilities to address them.
The Arctic serves as a bellwether for rapid environmental change and its impacts, and has a critical role in the regulation of global climate. The emerging questions presented in this report can teach us about the future Arctic and its role in the global system. Additionally, the way Arctic researchers prepare to address these emerging questions is likely to serve as a model for science globally. Because changes in the Arctic are happening fast and the signal emerges clearly from the noise, in many ways the science of change is currently easier to study in the Arctic than in most places. Arctic science is poised to identify and address emerging questions now, whereas it may be decades before scientists agree on analogous questions for other regions of the world. Arctic research has an opportunity to be the global leader in developing a new science of the dynamics of change. The focus of this report, as outlined in the Statement of Task (Box 1.1), is on these “emerging” research questions. Research questions may be emerging for various reasons. Some of these questions are ones that we are only now able to examine because reduced snow cover and sea ice facilitate access. Others are questions that can only now be addressed because of advances in analytical tools and/or new observing platforms. New technologies and access to new areas allow us to conduct studies that simply were not possible a decade ago. Rapid environmental and social changes pose new research challenges that did not exist in the past. A growing emphasis on interdisciplinary work, sustainability science, and decision support inevitably leads to connections that were not made earlier. New understanding provides insights that lead to questions that could not have arisen before. Other, possibly more important, questions are those that we had not even thought of asking before, and those that only became apparent as a result of ongoing research and rapid change.
We need to think over the long term. We cannot predict with certainty how the Arctic system will evolve during the next 10 to 20 years, but it is urgent that we gain our best estimate of its future state. To even begin to try, we also need to look far beyond the next decade or two, to potential endpoints of the current trajectory of change. The Arctic is currently in a transient state. Climate is changing rapidly, and the Arctic is
warming faster than the rest of the planet in all seasons. In response to that warming, the physical and biological components of the Arctic system are continually adjusting. At the same time, the social, political, and economic components of the Arctic system are also changing, in part in response to a changing Arctic environment that is more accessible than at any period in the post-industrialized era, but also in response to related and unrelated geopolitical pressures. As a result, even well-established multidecadal trends may be misleading. Records of past Arctic climates exhibit threshold behavior, with abrupt and profound changes in state that occurred within a decade, and suggest that future abrupt changes are possible in a warming climate regime (Lenton, 2012). Consequently, we need to consider not just the implications of current trends, but also our ability to predict unexpected departures from those trends and their subsequent implications.
Our task in this report is to assess what we can do now in Arctic research that is new and to identify those questions that we will regret having ignored if we do not invest in answering them soon.
This report was prepared by the Committee on Emerging Research Questions in the Arctic, appointed by the National Research Council (NRC) in response to a request from the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Smithsonian Institution to provide guidance on future research questions in the Arctic over the next 10 to 20 years (Box 1.1). The committee’s goal was to provide concise guidance for U.S. Arctic research so that research is targeted on critical scientific and societal questions and conducted as effectively as possible. In doing so, the committee considered the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) to be the main audience for this report. Thus the high level concepts listed in the Table of Contents (particularly in Chapters 3 and 4) are intended to be priorities for IARPC as a whole, with the understanding that individual agencies will prioritize investments in accordance with their specific mission and goals.
The Committee on Emerging Research Questions in the Arctic was formed in early 2013 and completed its work over the course of the next 14 months. It held four meet-
BOX 1.1 COMMITTEE ON EMERGING RESEARCH QUESTIONS IN THE ARCTIC
This activity is designed to provide guidance on future research questions in the Arctic over the next 10-20 years, identifying the key scientific questions that are emerging in different realms of Arctic science and exploring both disciplinary realms (e.g., marine, terrestrial, atmosphere, cryosphere, and social sciencesa) and crosscutting realms (e.g., integrated systems science and sustainability science). Based on the emerging research questions, the study will also help identify research infrastructure needs (e.g., observation networks, computing and data management, ship requirements, shore facilities, etc.) and collaboration opportunities. Attention will be given to assessing needs where there may be a mismatch between rates of change and the pace of scientific research. Although it is understood that there is no one answer, the committee is asked to explore how agency decision makers might achieve balance in their research portfolios and associated investments (e.g., what are some of the challenges of trying to do both problem-driven research and curiosity-driven research?). The goal is to guide future directions in U.S. Arctic research so that research is targeted on critical scientific and societal questions and conducted as effectively as possible.
The study committee will:
- Briefly summarize the rationale for continued U.S. research in the Arctic, including how climate change, together with other stressors, stands to affect the region in the coming decades and how changes in the Arctic region will affect other parts of the world.
- Identify, incorporating community input, the key scientific questions that are emerging in different realms of Arctic science, with attention to both disciplinary realms (e.g., marine, terrestrial, atmosphere, cryosphere, and social sciences) and crosscutting realms (e.g.,
ings during which it gathered community input and reviewed relevant literature and other information, including previous reports from numerous regional, national, and international agencies, organizations, and other institutions with active research programs in the Arctic. To inform its analysis, the committee organized an interdisciplinary workshop to begin identifying emerging research questions and technology and infrastructure needs. The workshop was held in May 2013 in Anchorage, Alaska, and included approximately 50 participants. A second workshop, hosted by the Canadian Polar Commission, was held in September 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario. Approximately 45 people participated in the Ottawa meeting. The participants of the Anchorage and Ottawa meetings are listed in Appendix B. The committee gathered additional com-
integrated systems science and sustainability science). As possible, discuss or indicate a general sense of priorityb within the primary areas.
- Identify the types of research infrastructure, data management, technological developments, and logistical support needed to facilitate the research and monitoring efforts that are needed to address the key scientific questions, including discussion of possible approaches to sustain long-term observations in the Arctic.
- Identify needs and opportunities for improved coordination in Arctic research among the different U.S. federal and state agencies and for improved international collaboration in Arctic research.
- Explore how agency decision makers might balance their research programs and associated investments (e.g., balancing work done to respond to urgent global change concerns versus work to advance fundamental knowledge and discovery). In other words, what are some of the challenges of trying to do both problem-driven research and curiosity-driven research?
a To provide some boundary on the committee’s discussion of emerging research questions, if health is addressed it should be limited to potential health issues related to environmental or climate change.
b The concept of priorities varies based on audience. That is, different factors are important to different audiences (importance to Arctic residents, to global population, to the science community attempting to understand the global climate system, or to decision makers working on economic development). In this study, the committee will consider the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) to be the primary audience for its report, recognizing that even within IARPC there are differing missions and thus differing needs. The intent is not to provide a literal ranking of research priorities but to provide some scale by which recipients of the report can better judge importance or time-relevance among the identified questions.
munity input through the use of an online community questionnaire1 (Appendix C), which received over 300 responses and a series of interviews with 15 Arctic researchers (Appendix B). Starting from the research questions identified in previous reports and by workshop, interview, and questionnaire participants, the committee used its expert judgment and deliberation to identify important emerging questions.
1 The questionnaire was not intended to be a scientific sampling, nor was any statistical analysis performed.
Chapter 2 is the Rationale for Continued Arctic Research, situating this report’s emphasis on emerging research questions in the wider context of Arctic research accomplishments, needs, and support. It is essential to recognize the value of ongoing Arctic research and the priorities identified in many venues, so that this report’s emphasis on emerging questions does not overshadow the significance of existing research activities and plans.
In Chapter 3, we present Emerging Research Questions in five categories, noting important existing questions, and recognizing the various ways the Arctic and our understanding of the Arctic are changing. The Evolving Arctic focuses on the transition to the “new normal” of reduced ice and snow and the cascade of impacts this will have on systems that depend on frozen ground and water. The Hidden Arctic explores what could be found as ice barriers diminish—and what could be forever lost amid rapid change. The Connected Arctic addresses the fact that changes occurring in the Arctic do not stay in the Arctic, but affect the rest of the Northern Hemisphere and beyond through rising sea levels, an altered jet stream, changes in the large-scale ocean circulation, invading species of plants and animals, transported chemicals and aerosols, and outside pressures on Arctic residents. Questions of societal changes, conflict and cooperation, and proactive vs. reactive decision making are raised in the Managed Arctic section. The Undetermined Arctic is concerned with how we can be prepared to detect and respond to the unexpected.
Equally important, Chapter 4 describes Meeting the Challenges, addressing what is needed to leverage efficiencies in making Arctic research happen, from collaboration and coordination, to sustained observations, building human and operational capacity, making information actionable as well as accessible, and innovative funding approaches.
The report concludes with Chapter 5, Building Knowledge and Solving Problems, which highlights the importance of connecting Arctic research with real-world issues.