responses to rapid arctic change
© Vladimir Seliverstov |

When it comes to observations to action, The International Arctic Research Center informs understanding and responses to rapid Arctic change, as we discover here

By way of an introduction, the Arctic is the most rapidly changing environment on Earth and is already experiencing transformations in its marine and terrestrial environments and social-environmental systems. Effective responses to such changes require a thorough understanding of drivers and impacts, based on sustained observations that guide model development and improve predictive capacity.

The International Arctic Research Center (IARC) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was founded to address the key challenges of Arctic observing science, particularly at scales that require international collaboration. One key to IARC’s success is rigorous engagement with stakeholders making decisions in and about a rapidly changing Arctic, requiring expertise and resources in science communication and the co-production of knowledge.

IARC research

Marine science

The Nansen and Amundsen Basins Observational System (NABOS) was conceived at IARC in 2002 to track remarkable changes in the Eurasian Basin of the Arctic Ocean. Since then, ten comprehensive multidisciplinary cruises have delivered critical information for documenting and understanding oceanic, atmospheric, and sea-ice change. Moorings anchored to the ocean floor beneath sea ice for several years have provided long-term continuous records, augmented by summer oceanographic surveys to provide spatial context.

Graduate students, high-school teachers, and summer schools are key elements of broad outreach during NABOS cruises. From its beginning to the most recent cruise in 2018, this programme has been a multinational endeavour, with scientists from many different countries working hand-in-hand to measure, analyse, and deliver complex data and information.

NABOS has provided critical information about unprecedented Arctic Ocean changes, likely representing a fundamental shift to a new, less stable, more dynamic marine environment. By the mid-2010s, the halocline in the eastern Arctic Ocean (an oceanographic feature separating surface from deeper waters) had lost its ability to serve as a lid preventing Atlantic Water heat at depth from reaching up to the sea ice bottom. Progressively deeper winter mixing has brought up more heat – diminishing the ice cover. Continued observations and analysis will establish whether this might be the onset of major winter sea-ice loss altering northern hemisphere weather patterns.

Terrestrial research

A massive green band spanning the high northern latitudes, the boreal forest stores immense amounts of soil carbon. Decomposition is slowly releasing this carbon to the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change, wildfires can accelerate this process.

Interior Alaska wildfires are burning bigger and hotter than in the past, and more frequent ‘mega-fire’ seasons challenge the region’s fire managers. With over 80% of Alaska’s population residing in or near the forest and wildlands, fire managers need science and technology to operate safely and efficiently. IARC meets these needs by developing locally relevant, accurate models and forecasts of Alaska’s changing fire regimes and impacts.

In a large, observation-limited state, this means using a sophisticated modelling approach known as dynamical downscaling. A coarse-resolution global climate model is linked to a regional model incorporating local climate information, providing “downscaled” model output with much finer resolution.

Fig. 1: The International Arctic Research Center has research and collaborations around the circumpolar north to help the world understand transformative changes in the Arctic

Managers welcome this new tool as part of their ongoing science-based effort to protect life and property in Alaska’s unique landscape. IARC is also exploring new ways to use fire weather predictions to assess the level of risk for upcoming fire seasons, supporting fire-response logistics and budget planning.

The role of government in responding to rapid Arctic change

The current capacity for local, state, and national governments to respond to a warmer, less predictable Arctic is weak. Observations and models may chart marine and terrestrial trajectories over the next half-century, but governments in the U.S. operate on far shorter time horizons. Furthermore, federalism splits responsibilities for environmental management, resulting in only incremental change for most government policies and services.

IARC supports the use of more observations by the government, across more scales, in the development of programmes and the enforcement of rules. IARC has the ability to translate and communicate complex changes across Arctic environments, so government officials and agency employees charged with fulfilling the mandates of government can connect today’s data with future desirable outcomes.

There must be an incentive for understanding: why should any politician care about something that falls outside of their constituents’ interests? Because humans are social-environmentally interdependent, even if our governments of states and localities split us up, Arctic warming affects North America and the world as a whole.

These challenges call for models and maps that are time appropriate for government cycles; transmittal of data demonstrating effects of Arctic change on lower latitudes; and linking local and Indigenous knowledge to promote a broader and deeper understanding of change.

Future outlook for the Arctic

Across all facets and functions at IARC and the global North, there is increasing recognition that solutions to Arctic problems require multi-sector, multi-stakeholder/actor approaches. IARC helps chart pathways, by building collaborative networks across the Arctic and non-Arctic nations, and by supporting efforts, such as the Arctic Observing Summit. Disruption from climate change in the North challenges our current institutional systems and governments. Observations of Arctic change both calls for and support key decisions in this decade to forestall future problems.

Authors: Nate Bauer, Igor Polyakov, Amy Lovecraft, Hajo Eicken, Heather McFarland, Peter Bieniek, Alison York.


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