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Collaboration at heart of Arctic research initiative

December 18th, 2015 | Shady Grove Oliver Print this article   Email this article  

As the international eye is focused on climate change in the Arctic, scientists, agencies, and locals are coming together to form a large-scale observing network to get a better handle on when, where, and how the effects will be manifest.

It's guided in part by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center through a program called the Study of Environmental Arctic Change, or SEARCH.

"When the program was put in place, it was felt that the challenge of tracking Arctic change if you want to do that thoroughly and effectively really requires a lot of people working together, not just federal agencies but also the State of Alaska as well as tribal governments and local organizations," said program chair Hajo Eicken.

That was one of the primary motivations for creating it using a cross-disciplinary model. Another driver was that changes in the Arctic affect everyone from local residents and organizations to the private sector.

"So, you can't try to isolate specific pieces of the problem to come up with effective responses," he said.

In November, stakeholders convened in Seattle for the 2015 Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting to share information and ideas for future cooperation.

Eicken chaired a panel discussion representative of the conference as a whole. Entitled "Achieving an Interagency Arctic Observing Network," it brought together representatives from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

"Each agency has its own mandate and its own interests and in many respects, arguably by design, they don't really overlap much," said Eicken. "I think what the panel nicely illustrated is that those missions or mandates don't really overlap but in the process, all of them rely on information that is part of another agency's area of interest as well."

One of the panelists was Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA's Arctic Research Program. For him, one of the benefits was being able to hear from not only federal agencies, but academic researchers from around the country who are all interested in what's happening in the far north.

"For the people who have studied the Arctic for a long time, we know that's the hottest spot on the earth in terms of observing climate change and its impacts," said Mathis. "We finally have gotten traction in getting the recognition that as the Arctic goes, so will the rest of the planet. It's a tremendous test bed for helping us understand how the rest of the world is going to respond."

His administration has been focusing on developing and testing new technologies, like drones and under ice instrumentation mooring systems, for use in the harsh environment year round. The hope is that by utilizing emerging technologies, researchers will be able to collect more data with a smaller carbon footprint and be less invasive for local communities.

"I think NOAA is uniquely positioned to play the role in technology and technology support and I think that will be the framework of a sustained Arctic observing network as we go into the future," said Mathis.

However, a concern for many locals on the Slope and in the Northwest is that researchers come into their communities, do what they are interested in, and leave, with no real benefit to people who are left with the consequences.

That's why, Mathis said, his organization is making a concerted effort to look to locals for guidance.

"We're spending a lot of time up in the villages talking to them about what observations they need," he said.

It often comes back to subsistence hunting and fishing. Traditional knowledge bearers have seen the changing migration patterns of herds, shifting weather patterns, and diminishing sea ice that make activities like whale hunting difficult.

Many communities are facing serious coastal erosion due to changing seas and melting permafrost; some are considering the possibility of relocating to more stable ground.

"We're really focusing on making sure the measurements that we're gathering up there aren't just for observing's sake," said Mathis. "We want to be collecting environmental intelligence and the whole concept of that is that it has a really clear purpose and a really clear application to problems that communities up there are having."

That's a priority for the network as a whole, said Eicken.

By bringing together a variety of organizations with different capabilities and integrating local knowledge, the results are more comprehensive than they would be otherwise.

"Inupiaq experts know what's changing but in many cases, if you want to be able to understand and ideally predict what's up ahead, you need a combination of scientific and local observations of that change," said Eicken. "That's the biggest goal—to make sure we have all the observations in place so we're better prepared for some of the things that are coming up ahead and that requires a high degree of collaboration."

The next step for the network is coming in March 2016, when the Arctic research center and the university will be hosting the Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks. It's happening concurrently with meetings of the Arctic Council working groups.

Many of the same stakeholders, including Mathis, will return to continue the conversations they began in November.

"We're seeing more and more that the changes that are occurring in the Arctic are having an impact throughout the continental U.S.," he said. "We've gotten into the habit of saying that what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic."


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