As rapid change unfolds throughout the Arctic system, the region is taking on an increasingly prominent role in national and international affairs. Because of processes involving ice and snow, climate change here is amplified, thus providing a bellwether for global warming. Yet the “New Arctic,” with much reduced ice, challenges existing scientific understanding of how systems behave. The loss of ice also opens doors of opportunity. With an abundance of fossil fuel deposits, minerals, and possible new fisheries, the Arctic attracts attention from industries and nations eager for new frontiers and opportunities for their economies and peoples. Patterns such as these reflect the worldwide trends that have led some scientists and commentators to refer to the current age as the Anthropocene, or epoch of humans.
In response to these changes, the region’s indigenous peoples are now exercising greater political power: The Arctic is at the forefront of evolving governance systems and cultural innovations compelled by rapid environmental and social changes. Research on the physical, biological, and social Arctic system is a crucial contributor to understanding the effects of those changes on the entire globe. A deeper understanding, together with stronger science-policy connections, can help inform an evolution toward sound policies and management.
The United States has a long history of Arctic research, from the first International Polar Year in 1882, to the establishment of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow, Alaska, in 1947, to the creation of Arctic research programs at the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Smithsonian Institution, and other agencies. The most recent International Polar Year, in 2007-2009, highlighted the significance of Arctic research globally and established a benchmark for assessing change and unveiling the future challenges facing the Arctic research community.
In this study, the committee was asked to examine “emerging research questions” in the Arctic (see Statement of Task in Box 1.1). Numerous other studies have identified priority research questions in various fields of Arctic research. Our task was not to duplicate these studies but to go beyond them, to identify questions that have arisen as rapid change has pervaded the Arctic system, that have not yet received the attention they likely deserve, and/or that can now be addressed given technological advances.
In the words of one scientist, we sought the questions that in 5 or 10 years’ time we will kick ourselves for not asking now.
With this mandate in mind, we acknowledge the importance of the high-priority existing questions that others have identified. Those questions remain a high priority, and nothing in this report is intended to detract from their urgency or significance. We therefore include examples of the kinds of questions that continue, for good reason, to motivate Arctic research and the funding thereof.
The selection of emerging questions that we identify and discuss in detail was based on a substantial foundation of information: a review of existing planning and other documents that include key research questions; on a workshop held in Anchorage, Alaska, with over 50 scientists providing ideas from all fields of Arctic research (Appendix B); on more than 300 responses to our community questionnaire of Arctic researchers (Appendix C); and on input from scientists, agency personnel, and diplomats gathered during a committee meeting in Ottawa, Canada, organized by the Canadian Polar Commission on our behalf.
In addition to identifying the emerging research questions, we also assess what is needed to address these questions and to remain able to study emerging topics into the future. Topics here include international and interagency cooperation, investing in and funding Arctic research, long-term observations, managing and sharing information, building operational and human capacity, and acting with knowledge. The report’s goal is not to resolve all of these challenges but rather to identify key gaps that may hinder the ability to address emerging research needs in the Arctic.
RATIONALE FOR CONTINUED ARCTIC RESEARCH
What happens in the Arctic has far-reaching implications around the world; loss of snow and ice exacerbates global climate change, including sea level rise. A significant portion of the world’s fish catch is from Arctic and subarctic waters, and up to 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil is in the Arctic. The iconic cultures and species of the Arctic capture the imagination of millions of people. The geologic history of the Arctic may hold vital clues about past mass extinctions and may offer insight about future ecological concerns. The climate, biology, and society in the Arctic are changing in rapid, complex, and interactive ways, with effects throughout the region and, increasingly, the globe. If we as a global society are to respond effectively to these challenges, understanding the Arctic system has never been more important.
The ability to identify and predict the ways in which loss of sea ice affects climate,
biology, and society will help us better prepare and adapt, in the Arctic and beyond. Assessing the impacts of industrial activity will facilitate development of appropriate regulatory strategies that deliver economic benefits while minimizing negative consequences. Studying the ways Arctic peoples respond to social and environmental change will advance our understanding of societal resilience and the conditions that foster it, for the Arctic and for human societies elsewhere.
In its deliberations, the committee considered four categories of information. (1) What we know, which forms the foundation for present response and future research efforts. A great deal is known about how the Arctic is changing, along with extensive information about Arctic conditions in various disciplinary fields. (2) What we know we need to know includes key questions driving current research, enumerated in many planning documents and other places, and recognizing how much is at stake. (3) What we think we don’t know (or what some know that others don’t) is an intriguing category of knowledge that is not widely shared and thus often overlooked, and includes traditional knowledge, proprietary data, and discipline-specific information that has not yet crossed over to inform other fields. (4) Finally, what we don’t know we don’t know is the realm of surprise, which by definition we cannot describe but to which we need to remain open, as there will undoubtedly be more surprises to come in the Arctic. This scheme allowed us to evaluate whether potential research questions met the criteria to be considered “emerging,” pointed us to the need for greater sharing of information to increase the pool of common knowledge, and reminded us to leave room for addressing future surprises.
We present our emerging research questions under five headings: Evolving Arctic, Hidden Arctic, Connected Arctic, Managed Arctic, and Undetermined Arctic. The lists of questions under each heading are not intended to be comprehensive or the final word on the subject, but they illuminate what we need to learn about the Arctic based on what we already know. They point the way to future research, but they do not imply any limits on what is needed.
The Arctic is rapidly changing. Climate change has received a great deal of attention in recent decades, but many of its implications for the Arctic system have yet to be studied in depth. Arctic societies are also changing rapidly, especially in the political
realm as indigenous peoples achieve greater autonomy in some regions. This section highlights six emerging questions that span disciplines, fields, and sectors:
Will Arctic communities have greater or lesser influence on their futures?
Many Arctic regions and peoples are experiencing greater political autonomy or influence, but they are also increasingly subject to the impacts of global markets and resource demands. How these competing influences will interact with one another is not clear, but certainly there will be major impacts on Arctic communities.
Will the land be wetter or drier, and what are the associated implications for surface water, energy balances, and ecosystems?
Degrading permafrost and changing precipitation (amount and phase) will alter the hydrologic regime on land, but the direction and timing of change—to say nothing of its implications—is not yet understood and may vary greatly through space and perhaps time.
How much of the variability of the Arctic system is linked to ocean circulation?
There is great variability in the currents and conditions that drive Arctic Ocean circulation, and these are changing rapidly as sea ice retreats and Arctic weather patterns change. The role of Arctic Ocean circulation as a driver of variability throughout the system is poorly understood.
What are the impacts of extreme events in the new ice-reduced system?
The change in average conditions in the Arctic is well documented, but the role of extreme events and sudden shifts or irreversible changes is not well understood. Forest fires, storms, rain-on-snow in winter, and other abrupt but powerful events may have lasting impacts.
How will primary productivity change with decreasing sea ice and snow cover?
Loss of snow and ice means increased sunlight to soils and waters, which should increase primary productivity. The availability of nutrients and, on land, the water content of soils may support more productivity or may offset the advantages of more light. The role of thawing permafrost and increasing active-layer thickness may mediate the trajectory of changes in primary productivity. A more detailed understanding of the processes resulting from snow and ice loss is needed.
How will species distributions and associated ecosystem structure change with the evolving cryosphere?
Changes in the physical environment will affect which species thrive and which fail under new conditions. Changes in abundance and distribution will affect ecosystem structure and could lead to cascading effects on ecosystem processes. The limitations on species adaptations and responses are not yet understood.
Many aspects of the Arctic have been unknowable, in large part because ice cover has blocked access, presenting a major barrier to research. Loss of sea ice, retreat of glaciers, and technological advances now allow research in new fields, new geographical areas, and throughout the year. At the same time, rapid change can lead to the loss of sites, features, and phenomena. This section highlights seven emerging questions spanning disciplines, fields, and sectors:
What surprises are hidden within and beneath the ice?
Permafrost holds gas hydrates and preserves organic remains, ice sheets likely hold records of the past not yet assessed, and sea ice conceals crucial oceanographic processes. The opportunity to study all of these holds great promise for new discoveries.
What is being irretrievably lost as the Arctic changes?
Archeological sites are eroding or decomposing as they emerge from permafrost or under ice. Specialized ecosystems are lost because of sudden physical change or the loss of rare habitat. Indigenous languages are in danger. An emerging challenge is how to study that which may soon be gone.
Why does winter matter?
Winter dominates in the Arctic, yet most field campaigns and process studies occur in the brief summer months. Understanding what happens in winter is essential to understanding how changes in physical processes during darkness will affect biota and ecosystems as well as oceanic and atmospheric structure.
What can “break or brake” glaciers and ice sheets?
Glaciers and ice sheets are currently losing mass throughout the Arctic, but positive and negative feedbacks that accelerate or retard ice loss and ice flow over various timescales are not well understood. Some mechanisms appear to accelerate ice loss,
but others may limit the rate of change, and changes in these mechanisms vary with season, region, and even along a single glacier. Understanding feedbacks is necessary to project future change, with consequences for sea level rise and more.
How unusual is the current Arctic warmth?
Recent summer sea ice loss in the Arctic has been faster than predicted. Reconstructing the timing and magnitude of past warm events can help identify mechanisms that explain rapid change, and provide insight into the future Arctic state, a major unknown.
What is the role of the Arctic in abrupt change?
Various mechanisms may be responsible for abrupt change, including volcanism, solar variability, and shifts in ocean currents or modes of natural variability. Examining how these have occurred in the past may shed light on what may occur in the near future, with far-reaching implications for humans around the world.
What has been the Cenozoic evolution of the Arctic Ocean Basin?
The geological history of the Arctic Ocean is poorly understood, but may hold clues to major questions, including the geologic processes that led to the onset of Arctic Ocean sea ice or the formation of large igneous provinces, and increase our understanding of ocean circulation changes. The loss of summer sea ice and improvements in seabed drilling technology allow new research to examine these and other key questions.
The Arctic system does not exist in isolation, but is connected by air and water currents, by animal migrations, and by societal interactions with the rest of the world. Climatic and meteorological connections in particular may have far-reaching implications globally, for example through rising sea level due to mass loss from land-based Arctic ice, and through weather patterns affected by sea ice loss and disproportionate Arctic warming. The experiences of Arctic cultures can inform and be informed by those of indigenous peoples elsewhere. This section highlights five emerging questions spanning disciplines, fields, and sectors:
How will rapid Arctic warming change the jet stream and affect weather patterns in lower latitudes?
The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere because of ice and snow loss as well as changes in atmospheric properties. The more rapid Arctic warming relative to mid-latitudes affects atmospheric circulation throughout the hemisphere, including the track of the jet stream and the persistence of weather patterns. These mechanisms have extensive effects throughout mid-latitudes and perhaps beyond.
What is the potential for a trajectory of irreversible loss of Arctic land ice, and how will its impact vary regionally?
Ice loss from local glaciers and ice caps as well as the Greenland Ice Sheet will cause sea level rise worldwide, but the rate of loss is difficult to predict. Furthermore, the loss of gravitational pull from the ice, the rebound of the land underneath, and shifting ocean currents will affect sea level regionally and globally, but in ways that cannot be predicted with accuracy.
How will climate change affect exchanges between the Arctic Ocean and subpolar basins?
The formation of relatively fresh seawater in the Arctic, and its export through Fram Strait, affects water circulation in the North Atlantic, particularly the formation of deep water that drives global ocean circulation. Changes in these patterns could have profound impacts around the world, but our current understanding is insufficient to predict what is likely to happen.
How will Arctic change affect the long-range transport and persistence of biota?
As Arctic summers warm and the ice-free season lengthens, boreal and subarctic species may migrate northward. Whether they can survive in Arctic conditions remains to be seen, but changes in distributions of plankton, plants, insects, fishes, birds, mammals, and other life forms are likely to affect many aspects of Arctic ecosystems, including interactions with the physical environment. Species will move at different rates, so there is the potential for entirely new communities and species interactions. Some species may not survive the loss of their habitat in the Arctic.
How will changing societal connections between the Arctic and the rest of the world affect Arctic communities?
Most political and transportation links in the Arctic flow north-south, not east-west. Increasing southern interest in the Arctic will affect Arctic communities through the influx of new people, new cultures, new ideas, and new opportunities. Sharing of expe-
riences among indigenous peoples worldwide may also facilitate sharing of effective adaptations.
Humans have lived in the Arctic for millennia, shaping their surroundings and making use of what the Arctic has to offer. In recent decades, the human environment has shifted greatly, including political and economic integration with nation-states and less obvious trends such as urbanization of Arctic peoples. Looking forward, the Arctic is likely to see large-scale human activity and interventions, including increasing interest in resource development and potentially some forms of geoengineering. Whether these changes will lead to conflict or cooperation remains to be seen, but research on these topics is essential to understand the drivers of change and their implications near and far. This section highlights five emerging questions spanning disciplines, fields, and sectors:
How will decreasing populations in rural villages and increasing urbanization affect Arctic peoples and societies?
Urbanization is a worldwide trend, but it has been studied little in the Arctic. Towns and cities play increasingly important roles in indigenous intellectual, artistic, economic, and political activity. At the same time, rural villages remain important sites of traditional activities not easily transferred to cities.
Will local, regional, and international relations in the Arctic move toward cooperation or conflict?
Potential resource development, claims on extended continental shelves or shipping routes, and increasing interest from non-Arctic countries all create the potential for conflict. On the other hand, most potential issues are covered by existing international arrangements, and the Arctic Council has admitted more observers. The interplay of these trends remains to be seen.
How can 21st-century development in the Arctic occur without compromising the environment or indigenous cultures while still benefiting global and Arctic inhabitants?
Interest in mineral, petroleum, and other resource development and increasing tourism are likely to grow throughout much of the Arctic in the next few decades. This would provide revenues and other benefits locally and nationally, but it also poses
environmental and cultural risks. Capitalizing on opportunities while reducing risks is a crucial task at the intersection of science, industry, and governance.
How can we prepare forecasts and scenarios to meet emerging management needs?
The Arctic environment, including its weather, snow conditions, and ice conditions, is changing rapidly. Past observations and experiences are not as reliable in predicting the future as they once were, at a time when there exists an ever greater need for forecasts and scenarios from daily to decadal time frames. Key research topics in this area include probing the limits of predictability and connecting user needs with specific forecast products.
What benefits and risks are presented by geoengineering and other large-scale technological interventions to prevent or reduce climate change and associated impacts in the Arctic?
Global and Arctic-targeted geoengineering in various forms has been suggested as both a short-term and a long-term response to climate change. The societal and environmental implications of various ideas have not been explored in depth, especially in the Arctic, which may experience greater inadvertent effects than in other regions.
Leaving room for new ideas and making it possible to identify them when the need arises require a combination of research (to better assess new topics), long-term observations (to identify changes and surprises without delay), and flexibility in funding (to be able to move quickly when a significant event occurs). We need to be prepared to look at the Arctic in new ways and to respond accordingly.
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
Identifying research questions is essential, but conducting the actual research and making full use of the results requires more than just the questions. The committee considered various logistical, technological, and other kinds of support that will improve our ability to address emerging questions. In many cases, such resources apply equally well to existing research questions and thus serve Arctic research in general. We did not assess resource questions exhaustively, but we raise them here for further consideration by agencies and others seeking to increase Arctic research capability in ways that effectively address the most pressing questions.
No single agency, organization, or even country can take on all research topics in the Arctic. Some research questions are too broad, or involve such extensive field efforts, that they cannot be resolved solely by researchers from a single country or supported by a single funding source. Cooperation is essential: among researchers, between agencies, among nations, across disciplines, between Arctic residents and visiting scientists, and with the private sector. There are good but relatively rare examples of such cooperation in each category, but obstacles often remain high.
Sustaining Long-Term Observations
Long-term observational data are essential for detecting change and for putting research findings into context. There are, however, few long-term observation efforts under way and too little coordination among those that do exist. Instead, available records are often a collection of ad hoc efforts conducted with different temporal resolutions, in different areas, and for different purposes. It is thus difficult to distinguish large-scale patterns from localized ones or to connect findings in one discipline with those from another. The necessary exchanges of information have yet to become routine practice, although some efforts have been made in that direction.
Managing and Sharing Information
Data are meaningful only if they can be easily accessed. Our understanding of the Arctic as a system has evolved through the capability to compare datasets from disparate fields and regions, to see connections, commonalities, and systematic differences. But data management to date has often been left to individuals or to separate efforts depending on agency, program, discipline, or other parameters. Data management requirements, too, have often been un- or under-funded, resulting in poor quality metadata, a lack of long-term archiving, and/or other shortcomings that greatly reduce the utility and value of hard-won and expensively produced data. Recently, more attention has been given to data management needs and challenges, so there is progress upon which to build. Researchers and stakeholders would benefit from continuing this effort, along with progress in techniques for using and visualizing data so that they can be used more readily and more often, both by scientists and by others with an interest or a stake in the Arctic.
Maintaining and Building Operational Capacity
New technologies allow new approaches to conduct research in many fields. Among the most promising recent developments is a host of autonomous mobile sensors for the ocean and atmosphere. These can be deployed relatively easily and inexpensively, and thus promise to alleviate the limitations of icebreaker access or aircraft time (though range is still limited for many such devices). New remote sensing capabilities are also being developed to measure features of the Arctic system that required in situ observation in the past. It is also important to sustain the capacity that exists, such as at research stations and by satellites. Even with new developments, there is still a need for heavy-duty icebreaking capability, which at present is a critical weakness of U.S. Arctic research capacity. Improvements in power generation for remote sensor arrays, and better broadband communication for transmitting and sharing data, are also important for increasing our ability to conduct research and observations in the Arctic. Improvements in modeling and forecasting will not only provide a clearer window to the future, but will also better guide research needs and help determine optimal placement of field sites. The increasing role of industry in the Arctic creates opportunities for private sector involvement, for example, through public-private partnerships.
Growing Human Capacity
Arctic research depends on sufficient human capacity, including scientists trained in the necessary fields who are capable of interdisciplinary collaboration and working across the Arctic. During the International Polar Year, concerted efforts were made to involve young researchers, and those opportunities helped to train the next generation of scientists in Arctic research. Arctic residents can offer a great deal, as well, and the capacity for local involvement in all stages of research can be improved. There are many good examples of such collaborations, but also apparent are indications of “research fatigue” among those who have been the subject of, or otherwise involved in, many studies without seeing a direct return for their efforts. For Arctic residents, a crucial aspect of human capacity is the ability to act on what is learned from research, and to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and societies as they face rapid and far-reaching changes. Making connections between research activities and real-world challenges requires more effort on all sides.
Investing in Research
The research that gets done is the research that gets funded. Funding mechanisms and program objectives perhaps require re-evaluation to determine whether they are in fact addressing high-priority questions and pressing needs. Society’s ability to address emerging research questions in the Arctic is closely tied to the way research funding is organized. Other approaches are used in different countries, and the tradeoffs involved are worth considering to assess whether some of those approaches might be adopted or adapted in the United States. Systems research and synthesis research often require more than individual projects, and thus can be difficult to carry out effectively when proposals are considered individually and projects are conducted independently over short time periods. Funding non-steady state research will be necessary to better understand the dynamics of thresholds, resilience, and transformation in a rapidly changing Arctic. Research ideas from stakeholders often fall outside the priorities identified by the scientific community, and thus may be less likely to receive funding, even if they address key needs. Additionally, long-term observations are often difficult to fund as the value of such records is often not realized until many years later. Mechanisms to coordinate funding from multiple nations are obscure, time-consuming, and fraught with difficulty, leading to reduced international collaboration. The role of the private sector in research is also increasing and could be better integrated with publicly-funded research.
BUILDING KNOWLEDGE AND SOLVING PROBLEMS
Research activities are sometimes separated into categories of “basic” and “applied” science, or “curiosity-driven” and “problem-oriented” research. These categories are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing. Improving the ways scientific results are used to inform policy and management processes is important. Collaboration is necessary, not just among scientific disciplines or between scientists and those who live in the Arctic, but also with decision makers, to better understand what they require and how scientific results are factored with other considerations to produce decision outcomes. The United States has demonstrated the will to devote resources to Arctic research. An equal will to apply the results of research is essential, as is a continued commitment to studying what exists, what is emerging, and what awaits us in the Arctic.