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It's cold up there. Arctic sea ice cover in September 2010, from data collected by a NASA satellite.

It's cold up there. Arctic sea ice cover in September 2010, from data collected by a NASA satellite.

NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio

Bigger, Better Arctic Studies Needed, U.S. Report Argues

A new ocean. An unpredictable landscape changing faster than any other place on Earth. And remote, impenetrable places that are hard to reach and sit in darkness for months each year. Those are just some of the things awaiting researchers who will confront the challenge of studying the Arctic in the 21st century, concludes a report released yesterday.

“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,” finds the report from the National Research Council (NRC) of the U.S. National Academies. “Understanding the Arctic system has never been more important.”

The study, sponsored by several U.S. science agencies, aims to identify “the questions that in five or ten years’ time we will kick ourselves for not asking now,” the NRC expert panel writes.

There’s no shortage of questions emerging as the Arctic melts. Sea ice is vanishing at an alarming rate. Warm water is entering the Arctic from the Atlantic Ocean, with the impacts still unclear. The Arctic Ocean is becoming fresher due to melting ice and changes in hydrology on land. As permafrost melts, some trees are growing faster, while others find their roots inundated with liquid water. “The cascading ecological impacts (e.g. on bears, caribou, small mammals and insects) are unknown,” the report notes.

And the future Arctic will pose new intellectual challenges. About one-third of the Arctic Ocean is comprised of continental shelves, for instance, and researchers aren’t sure how shelf communities will evolve as ice melting increases. The region is getting stormier, which threatens settlements, aids ocean mixing that funnels nutrients to deeper waters, and could speed the breakup of sea ice. “We want to keep focus on the questions we’ve been asking, but [also] how we can be in position to detect the next thing,” said Stephanie Pfirman, an Arctic scientist at Barnard College in New York City, who co-chaired the report.

Researchers also need to “look at what will be irretrievably lost as warming in the Arctic continues,” said report co-chair Henry Huntington, an Arctic scientist with the Pew Charitable Trusts in Eagle River, Alaska, on a conference call yesterday. For instance, researchers may have a limited time to survey coastal archaeological sites threatened by erosion, to sample melting ice sheets holding clues to past climates, and to document so-called thermokarst lakes, which are formed by meltwater from permafrost.

Local languages are disappearing, too: The report calls for redoubled efforts to document and study indigenous cultures now, as groups that have depended on the frozen Arctic from Alaska to Scandinavia are adapting to a warmer climate or leaving altogether. A big focus should be on social science aimed at understanding the impacts on the region’s millions of inhabitants, the report says, plus the region’s outsized role in shipping, fishing, and natural resource production. “People are making decisions now. They’re not waiting for studies to come in 5 years from now,” Huntington says.

Creating stable interdisciplinary partnerships and funding formal data centers will be key to carrying out such studies, the authors argue, and to “creating a culture of data preservation and sharing.” At the moment, a survey of 300 Arctic scientists revealed, many researchers who participate in international research collaborations “do so as a volunteer activity,” Pfirman said. “When they give up that activity, the whole collaboration tends to fall apart.” Researchers also “need to be engaging a broader set of people in collecting data in real time,” Huntington added.

The report is silent on the total amount of funding required to study the changing Arctic, but it suggests a number of structural changes to funding mechanisms. The typical recipients of 3- to 5-year research grants are driven by the demands of publication, which cost them flexibility and can constrain them from collaborations with other scientists, it argues. An approach that could augment those grants would be multi-investigator projects with lots of collaborators studying portions of a system to encourage cross-pollination, the authors write. And while the wilds of the Arctic are calling, they argue that researchers need to do more big-picture collaborating and thinking back at their desks. “There is currently an imbalance, with most research initiated by individuals and small groups, and few resources devoted towards larger-scale synthetic thinking and study.” Studies that combine a variety of threads to make big conclusions “lack the allure of new field research,” the report concedes. But big conclusions are likely to come, it concludes, if researchers start asking new, more collaborative questions.