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First Arctic Science Ministers' Confab Yields Cooperation Pledge

Newly announced ventures and advances include developing an Integrated Arctic Observing System and the release of the first-ever Arctic-wide digital elevation model.


Science ministers from the United States and 24 foreign governments, as well as other parties, met yesterday at the White House and agreed to cooperatively study rapid changes in the Arctic and incorporate their findings into national policies and decisions regarding the region.

The ministers asserted “the importance of improving collaborative science efforts in the Arctic” in a joint statement following the first-ever Arctic science ministerial, a gathering of high-level science diplomats. The group also announced a series of new Arctic science initiatives and milestones following the meeting.

“For the sake of the future of Arctic residents, and to improve our understanding of how changes in the Arctic will affect the rest of the planet, we intend to contribute to and enhance a shared understanding of the causes, implications, and future changes to the Arctic environment,” reads the statement issued by the eight members of the Arctic Council, including the United States and Russia, along with additional states and other parties. Those included China, India, and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union (EU). Representatives of Arctic indigenous communities also took part in the meeting.

“We also intend to work to ensure that this increased understanding informs our national policies and decisions concerning Arctic development, commercial activity, stewardship, and the needs of the region’s residents, including Indigenous peoples,” the statement continues.

A Collective Process to Deal with a Looming Challenge

The meeting launched “a new stage” in Arctic science cooperation, Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. government’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee, told Eos.

“We needed a process for dealing collectively with the looming challenge that the Arctic represents,” he said. The Arctic “is a delicate region, not just environmentally, but strategically. No one country can just dictate to everyone else what is needed.”

There is now a “global commitment” at the highest level of science in the countries “to emphasize the Arctic as a region for investment in science and for international collaboration in science,” added Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent agency based in Arlington, Va., that advises the president and Congress on Arctic research. Ulmer, a U.S. delegation cochair at the meeting, told Eos that the ministerial was not a “one-shot deal,” with the EU offering to host a follow-on in 2018.

Arctic-Wide Digital Elevation Model

Among the newly announced initiatives and products, the EU will launch a 5-year program to develop an Integrated Arctic Observing System and two projects to understand the impact of the changing Arctic on Northern Hemisphere weather and climate. Also, the U.S. Office of Naval Research will create the Arctic Mobile Observing System, and Finland and the United States will organize an international Arctic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education summit during the 2-year Finnish chairmanship of the Arctic Council that begins in 2017.

In addition, the United States released the first-ever Arctic-wide digital elevation model (DEM)—in essence, a three-dimensional digital map—with land surface resolution of 8 meters. A 2-meter Arctic DEM is in the works. These products, which result from a collaboration between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation, follow the 1 September release of a high-resolution DEM of Alaska.

“Topography is one of the most important data sets for the Earth sciences,” Paul Morin, ArcticDEM project lead, told Eos. Morin, director of the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, said the DEM will facilitate calculations of the changing volume of Arctic ice, identify where thawing permafrost is collapsing, and pinpoint coastal erosion.

The Right Priorities

The joint statement from the meeting identified the right priorities for the Arctic, according to Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, a think tank in Falmouth, Mass., that works on climate issues. “Short of massive new resources, what can you do that can be more effective than what they have done?” he remarked to Eos. Duffy lauded the countries at the table for agreeing to some common priorities, but he noted that “there are parties who are really interested in resource extraction and don’t necessarily want to highlight the dangers of climate change.”

 Brad Ack, senior vice president for oceans at the World Wildlife Fund, told Eos that the meeting shone a spotlight on the need to get better at understanding, predicting, and modeling the critical changes in the Arctic. “We need to increase our level of certainty about these changes to get the kind of policy action that we need in the Arctic and on climate change,” he said.

Getting top science advisers to say that Arctic research is a priority for their country “will go a long way,” added Robert Rich, executive director of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, a nonprofit based in Fairbanks, Alaska. He said the next crucial step is to follow up “with real action and real implementation and real investment” in Arctic research.

Perspective of Arctic Residents

The ministerial will heighten awareness among the general public about people living in the Arctic and seeing dramatic flux from climate change, several Arctic residents, including Nome, Alaska, mayor Richard Beneville, told Eos. Ellen Inga Turi, a member of the Saami Council, said that rapid changes create greater interest in regional economic development and an increased need and curiosity for Arctic research. Along with that, Turi called for strengthening the science capacity of the Saami people. She added that Saami who share their indigenous knowledge with the outside world “need to be ensured that the property rights will protect our knowledge, and it is not shared in the public domain without the knowledge owners’ consent.”

The ministerial cooperative research efforts are “groundbreaking,” said Stephanie Pfirman, professor of environmental science at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York. She coauthored a ministerial briefing paper about climate change and the Arctic. “The changes in the Arctic are dramatic, and the potential for global implications is strong. It is a time when people need to rise to the challenge that is being presented to them.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), First arctic science ministers’ confab yields cooperation pledge, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO060215. Published on 29 September 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0