Observable changes, many of which have regional and global implications, are underway across the Arctic. Although the Arctic is not the only region on Earth affected by environmental change, it poses special problems and concerns. It is a region with a limited record of observations—low density, and with limited duration and coordination—and yet, despite these constraints, rapid and systemic changes have clearly been identified.1 The interconnectedness of physical, biological, chemical, and human components, together with the high amplitude of projected changes, make a compelling argument for an improved observation infrastructure that delivers a coherent set of pan-arctic, long-term, multidisciplinary observations. Without such observations, it is very difficult to describe current conditions in the Arctic, let alone understand the changes that are underway or their connections to the rest of the Earth system. Without such observations, society’s responses to these ongoing changes and its capability to anticipate, predict, and respond to future changes that affect physical processes, ecosystems, and arctic and global residents are limited.
This report outlines the potential scope, composition, and implementation strategy for an Arctic Observing Network (AON). Such a network would build on and enhance existing national and international efforts and deliver easily accessible, complete, reliable, timely, long-term, pan-arctic observations. The goal is a system that can detect conditions and fundamental variations in the arctic system, provide data that are easily compared and analyzed, and help improve understanding of how the arctic system functions and changes. The network would serve both scientific and operational needs.
A comprehensive AON, by definition, transcends national boundaries and the timeframes of individual science investigations. Thus, a key contribution of the AON will be to provide a framework within which existing programs can be linked and supplemented. As the overarching network, the AON would provide continuity across national boundaries into the foreseeable future. By building on and supporting existing networks and observing capabilities, the AON would be enhancing their ability to report on status and trends in the Arctic. For example, the AON could provide a more comprehensive picture, rather than the current piecemeal view; it could achieve efficiencies by making better use of operational monitoring and through rationalizing logistics (i.e., getting more value for the same investment); and it could drive greater consistency in measurements so that comparisons can be made across areas and themes.
What would the AON look like? It would be a system of observational infrastructure—including satellites, terrestrial observatories, ocean buoys and moorings, weather stations, hydrologic monitoring stations, ecological sampling networks, arctic residents, and other data sources—that will collect, check, organize, and distribute arctic observations while taking the necessary measures to continuously adapt and improve the network.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE ARCTIC OBSERVING NETWORK
Humans have been observing change in the Arctic and using these observations to understand their surroundings and make decisions for thousands of years. Localized bodies of knowledge, passed down through generations of northern residents and arctic travelers and scientists, increasingly have been supplemented by an array of semi-permanent monitoring sites and automated sensors linked to digital databases. Society’s many
contemporary observing systems, methodologies, and networks,2 in addition to the body of local and traditional environmental knowledge, are all potential components of a pan-arctic network, which, in turn, can fit into a global-scale observing network.
Despite the long history of arctic observations, long-term records are incomplete, and there are measurement gaps in all domains. It is also difficult to compare data across disciplines. Many voids exist because measurement programs are inadequate or because of technological limitations created by the harsh conditions and remoteness. In addition, some areas have lost measurement capabilities as gauges and observatories have been decommissioned due to lack of resources. Declines in surface-based observations erode the capability to validate satellite imagery, thus also undermining the usefulness of that data source. Finally, many of the observational data that do exist come from specific research projects that collected data in limited areas for short periods of time. As such, continuity in time and space is rarely the result of a larger plan. Most existing science planning efforts address specific questions, processes, time scales, or regions, and they gather just the data needed for the specific project. The overlay of a comprehensive AON could supply the wide-area, long-term observations needed to track the state of the Arctic and understand how the system functions as part of the global environmental system.
THE COMMITTEE’S TASK
The U.S. National Science Foundation, through its Office of Polar Programs, requested guidance from the U.S. National Academies3 to help design a pan-arctic observing network. Given the nature of this task, the study committee appointed to conduct the work was international in membership, and many efforts were made to include international input during the study and report review. The Committee was asked to develop an overarching philosophy and conceptual foundation for an AON and, where possible, provide advice to move the concept toward implementation. Because the network would necessarily build on existing efforts rather than duplicate them, the Committee was asked to review the purposes and extent of existing and planned global observing systems and platforms and to highlight critical spatial, temporal, or disciplinary gaps. In addition, the Committee was asked to identify key variables of importance to the Arctic, describe the infrastructure and approach needed to create a comprehensive network, comment on how to ensure sound data and information management and access, and recommend a strategy to ensure efficient, coordinated implementation and operation of the network.
To conduct its work, the Committee met five times over 15 months to gather information, deliberate, and write this report. The Committee held two workshops. The first was in Anchorage, Alaska, and focused on North American perspectives. The second was in Copenhagen, Denmark, and sought more international perspectives.
The Committee’s report has seven chapters and begins with a summary of the motivations for an AON and the vision and context for the network. Chapter 2 then describes a process for identifying key variables to measure in the network and presents a list of 31 variables spanning physical, biogeochemical, and human domains. Chapter 3 contains an overview of existing observational activities and gaps, and is supported by an extensive annex that illustrates the range of programs, observatories, networks, satellites, data centers, and coordination activities upon which the AON could build. Chapter 4 presents a data management strategy for the AON and a series of implementation recommendations for data management. Chapter 5 covers options and strategies for network design, including philosophical considerations, network components, measurement approaches, principles and strategies for deciding where to make observations, and the role of technology. Chapter 6 presents detailed ideas and recommendations for implementing the AON, organized under four functional themes that work in parallel to enhance the network. These detailed ideas are summarized in the Committee’s overarching recommendations in Chapter 7.
An integrated, complete, dynamic, and multidisciplinary environmental observing network will improve society’s understanding of and ability to respond to ongoing systemic changes in the Arctic and its capability to anticipate, predict, and respond to future change both in the Arctic and around the globe. The data flowing from this network could contribute to a wide range of programs and activities, including research studies, decision-support tools, and integrated environmental assessments that help decision makers understand what is happening and, as appropriate, adopt adaptation and mitigation measures.
Recommendation 1: An Arctic Observing Network should be initiated using existing activities and with the flexibility and resources to expand and improve to satisfy current and future scientific and operational needs. In its initial phase, the network should monitor selected key variables consistently across the arctic system.
A number of important internationally coordinated efforts with relevance to observing the arctic system are being
planned for the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008. During the IPY, there will be a burst of new and intensive monitoring for a two-year period that will help jump-start the AON. Experience, knowledge, and infrastructure (in particular, new observations, data measurement and management approaches, and logistical support) gained through the IPY could provide new resources to advance the AON beyond its existing core components (e.g., AMAP, EMEP, IABP, ITEX, etc.). In addition, there are emerging activities including the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, SEARCH, the International Study of Arctic Change, the Arctic Council’s Consortium for coordination of Observation and Monitoring of the Arctic for Assessment and Research (COMAAR) that provide timely opportunities to enhance and better coordinate the AON because they offer access to international partners and capabilities.
Recommendation 2: Work to design and implement an internationally coordinated Arctic Observing Network should begin immediately to take advantage of a unique window of opportunity created by a convergence of international activities during the International Polar Year that focus on observations.
The AON will build on existing efforts and will require new resources (including dedicated personnel) to fuel its development. The details of who should take responsibility for such efforts are outside the Committee’s purview. Instead, the Committee presents fundamental activities that must be organized at the heart of the network and will need constant and focused activity to maintain and enhance observations and data flow. It is not necessary that one international body coordinate all of these activities, but these activities must be developed under a common framework. The AON would have four essential functions:
observing system development (which includes assessing complete coverage, system design and optimization, technology development, and sensor and observer deployment);
data acquisition (which includes maintaining existing observational capabilities and filling critical gaps);
data management, integration, access, and dissemination; and
network maintenance and sustainability (which includes network and observation sustainability, personnel development, coordination and integration regionally and globally, and communication).
Progress on all four of these functions is needed in parallel—in part because different communities and disciplines are at different stages of development, but also because each function is critical to development of a comprehensive network. Flexibility to accommodate technological improvements and changing sensor density is needed from the outset. The Committee presents detailed implementation ideas for these essential functions in Chapter 4 (data management) and Chapter 6 as well as related summary recommendations on each function in Chapter 7 (Box S.1 contains examples of these recommendations specific to network implementation and operation).
Building the AON will require international cooperation and support. Because some areas of the Arctic have more developed monitoring and information systems than others, it will be critical to engage all arctic nations from the outset. This report provides a broad vision for such a network and the next step is for the international community of scientists, operational and research government agencies, other governmental and nongovernmental groups, arctic residents, and industry to take what they find useful from this vision, refine it, and implement the ideas. Because many potential components of the network already exist or are being planned, and because of the surge of activity during the IPY, there is an immediate opportunity for major progress.
Recommendation 3.1a: A system design assessment should be conducted within the first two years of AON development—that is, as a component of IPY—to ensure a pan-arctic, multidisciplinary, integrated network. This effort should be undertaken by a diverse team, with participation and input from multiple disciplines, stakeholder groups, and those involved in related international observing activities. The assessment should use existing design studies, models, statistical approaches, and other tools.
Recommendation 3.1b: The AON should be continuously improved and enhanced by taking advantage of the findings and recommendations in the system design assessment and performance metrics and data provider and user feedback that will become an enduring feature of the network.
Recommendation 3.2a: The first phase of AON development will require sustaining existing observational capabilities (including those under threat of closure) and filling critical gaps.
Recommendation 3.2b: The AON should support development, testing, and deployment of new sensors and other network-related technology. In parallel with recognizing the importance of systems engineering and instrument validation and calibration, this will require supporting (i) expert groups to track advances in technology that satisfy overarching network needs and (ii) centers of excellence and a technology incubator program to adapt and develop needed technology.
Recommendation 3.3: A data management system initially built on existing data centers and resources must be designed and implemented immediately by an AON data management committee to support major functions of the network. This system should be accessible through a single portal that connects data across disciplines and themes and should seamlessly link information from arctic sensors, historical datasets, and researchers and other users across space and time.
Recommendation 3.4a: For the AON to realize its potential, long-term, coordinated, international resources and efforts should be dedicated to sustaining observing platforms, providing incentives for contributions to the network, network coordination and integration, communication, and human resource development.
Recommendation 3.4b: Arctic residents must be meaningfully involved in the design and development of all stages of the AON. From the outset, the system design assessment should cultivate, incorporate, and build on the perspectives of human dimensions research and arctic residents. The AON must learn what is needed to facilitate the involvement of local communities and create an observing network that is useful to them as well as to scientists and other users.