Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

White House Issues Ambitious Arctic Research Plan

The plan focuses on improving the well-being of Arctic residents and better understanding the components of the Arctic system.

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A new Arctic research plan issued by the Obama administration 1 month before President-elect Donald Trump assumes office provides an updated road map for U.S. federal interagency research on the rapidly changing region for 2017–2021. However, the direction Trump will take regarding Arctic research remains to be seen.

The plan, released on 15 December, aims to tackle a number of goals, including improving the well-being of Arctic residents, strengthening coastal community resilience, and getting a better grip on other key regional dynamics. For the latter, the plan calls for more research to better understand the region’s atmospheric composition; sea ice cover; marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems; and the mass balance of glaciers, ice caps, and the Greenland ice sheet. An overarching goal calls for generating “environmental intelligence”—environmental knowledge such as observations, data, and models that can be used in support of decision-making.

“The United States is an Arctic nation—Americans depend on the Arctic for biodiversity and climate regulation and for natural resources. America’s Arctic—Alaska—is at the forefront of rapid climate, environmental, and socio-economic changes that are testing the resilience and sustainability of communities and ecosystems,” the report states. For these reasons, research to increase the fundamental understanding of changes in the Arctic “is needed to inform sound, science-based decision- and policy-making and to develop appropriate solutions for Alaska and the Arctic region as a whole.”

Research to Drive Policy

The interconnectedness of research and policy is central to the plan. It identifies four areas where Arctic research can serve as “policy drivers” to better address health, economic development, and other issues related to Arctic residents; environmental stewardship; national and regional security; and an improved understanding of the Arctic as a component of the global system.

A Flexible Plan

“We don’t know what the new administration’s priorities will be, but we did prepare the plan in full knowledge of the fact that it would likely be issued shortly before a new administration takes over,” Martin Jeffries, assistant director for polar sciences within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), told Eos. Implementation of the plan focuses on its first 2 years to “allow a new administration the time to decide where its priorities will be” and to allow the plan to change accordingly, Jeffries said.

Jeffries, who also serves as executive director for OSTP’s Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), spoke with Eos prior to a 15 December town hall that introduced the plan at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. IARPC organizes the interagency Arctic research efforts of 16 federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior (DOI), the National Science Foundation, NASA, and OSTP. IARPC has been a working group of OSTP’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability of the National Science and Technology Council since 2010.

The new plan, which builds on an earlier one for 2013–2017, is one of the Obama administration’s final initiatives related to the Arctic. Earlier this week, the White House made several other Arctic announcements: On Tuesday, the administration withdrew offshore areas in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from future mineral extraction and announced an initiative with Canada to identify sustainable shipping lanes through their connected Arctic waters.

Rubber Meets the Road

IARPC member William Brown, chief environmental officer of DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said that at this point people can only conjecture about what the incoming administration’s view will be on fundamental science. “I don’t think one should presume that there is opposition to it,” he told Eos. “I don’t think campaign statements by candidates necessarily translate into what the president does.”

The science related to climate change “is so overwhelming,” Brown said. But he noted that the value of the plan depends on the extent that it benefits the welfare of Arctic residents, shows the value of Arctic ecosystems for people, and increases knowledge about how extremes of weather and ice affect U.S. national and regional security.

He said that the policy drivers will help to carry the agenda of the plan into the future. “The rubber meets the road in the new plan,” he said.

Jeffries, who first crossed the Arctic Circle as a graduate student in 1982, has witnessed dramatic changes in Alaska and throughout the region over the past several decades. But regional changes aren’t the only issue here, he explained.

“The changes we are seeing in the Arctic are having an impact, or will have an impact, outside the Arctic,” Jeffries said. “If we are to be better prepared for climate change and global change in the lower latitudes, including the contiguous 48 states, we need to understand what is going on in the Arctic and its effects on the rest of the world.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), White House issues ambitious Arctic research plan, Eos, 97, https://doi.org/10.1029/2016EO065481. Published on 23 December 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0