Arctic System Science Research

Climate change, disappearing ice, shifting snow cover, and water resources in the Earth’s polar regions form significant challenges for both research and policymaking. The goal of this project to develop effective strategies and toolkits for understanding the interconnectedness of these systems, together with communicating science outcomes for policy and outreach.

Communicating change in the Arctic

Because the scientific issues associated with a changing cryosphere are emerging so rapidly, are so highly coupled and interdisciplinary, and must interact with human belief systems that are shaped by psychological, social, economic, and political factors, it has been difficult to effectively communicate the scientific knowledge that would be of essential value to the public and to policy makers.

On November 12-14, 2014, an NSF-funded international workshop that was hosted by the World Bank in Washington, DC convened to identify key research opportunities in this science communications domain, which ultimately could be used to raise awareness of this important transformation of the Earth system.

Such knowledge could be indispensable in better informing decisions on climate mitigation and adaptation, many of which will undoubtedly be driven in response to the disappearance of ice-dominated systems.

A summary report from this workshop is available as a high resolution PDF.

Understanding the Pan-Arctic/Earth System

Starting in Fall 2016, the Environmental Sciences Initiative, together with researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, UCAR, The City College of New York/CUNY, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the University of Colorado-Boulder will host a series of NSF-funded community workshops to discuss new Arctic systems science research questions.


Venue: CUNY Advanced Science Research Center, New York, NY

Dates: 14-16 November 2016

The first of two workshops dedicated to the design of community-based activities in synthesis to support Arctic systems research assembled 20 participants from a broad spectrum of disciplines. These included representatives from the natural sciences (atmospheric physics, climatology, meteorology, hydrology, oceanography, biogeochemistry, wildlife biology), social sciences, and experts in information technologies, remote sensing and policy formulation.

A central scientific question motivated the overall organization of the Workshop, the series of formal presentations and ensuing discussion: What are the biogeophysical forces that generate extreme events in the Arctic, how do they function, how do these changes change over time and thus emerge in the future?

Two overview talks were first presented, representing the views of the conference organizers and offereing the overall structure and aims of the workshop. These were followed by participant talks in individual disciplines, but with each speaker offering systems-relevant perspectives. Parallel break-out sessions focused on three themes identified by the group as requiring systems-level thinking: (i) Contaminants in the Arctic Environment: Source-transport-fate (ii) The Unreliable Snowpack, and (iii) Unprecedented Warmth and Year 2016. Two reports were made by each of the teams in plenary, followed by open plenary discussion.

Collectively, these deliberations led to ten consensus findings, which are being elaborated upon as the basis for a peer-reviewed paper:

Regime shifts in the extremes define new Arctic realities and vulnerabilities 

A warming Arctic is fundamentally changing the dynamics of a major component within the Earth’s cryosphere and thus its climate and biogeophysical systems, which in turn will have critical impacts on social systems, economics and human decision-making. At its core, warming means that the frozen season is shortening while the thaw season expands. Superimposed onto this backdrop of a warming trend are extremes in atmospheric or oceanic heat inputs and the resulting redistributions of water and constituents that exist in solid, liquid or gaseous phase. In terrestrial systems, for example, increase in the frequency and intensity of rain events (especially, rain-on-snow or rain-on-ice) automatically changes a large number elements of the Arctic system—both in terms of their stocks and dynamics—which otherwise are highly dependent on a consistent, snow-dominated precipitation regime. Abrupt changes in these “norms” in snowpack undermines normal system functioning, and if the snowpack is no longer reliable, new feedbacks in system are likely to emerge, thus “re-wiring” key elements of the arctic energy and water cycles. This question becomes relevant not only in terms of the physics of the system, like in terms of heat transport, permafrost integrity or hydrologic dynamics, but also in terms of biology, for example as refreezing rain-on-snow prevents access to forage by wildlife. There are a number of well-documented outcomes but there are apt to be many unknowns. And, to date, no systems-level understanding of such phenomena is available, in part owing to the absence of systems-level research programs.

What is known and unknown?  

Some of the basic physics of a warming Arctic system are indeed understood and to some degree embedded as process-level components within climate and biogeophysical system models, e.g., for its atmosphere and hydrology. Extreme events have also been observed and interpreted, both in terms of attribution and impacts (e.g., Mackenzie and Lena River extreme flooding linked to weather anomalies). Such analyses are predicated on sufficient monitoring capabilities, some forms of which are becoming more available while others are in decline. Thus, while it is true that mean temperature trends are increasing (as an arguably less spatially and temporally heterogeneous signal of climate change), do we have sufficient instrumentation to characterize its variability? Do we have sufficient skill in identifying the magnitude and timing of changes in affiliated rainfall and snowfall? In the biological domain, some information is being revealed with respect to general pressures on individual species, but population dynamics and cascading ecosystem consequences are yet to be elucidated. On land, local, single-season process studies on impacts of changing snowpack (e.g., snow removal experiments), are available, but synthetic, system-level understanding has yet to take root. Sea-ice dynamics and ocean ecosystems are one arena where studies of extremes have been studied.

How do we study extremes?  

Models will play an important role in developing and testing our understanding of system-level linkages. They can first be developed from studies on individual processes, informed by in situ observations and field experimentation from individual locales. Yet because the inherent nature of extremes explicitly involves both spatial and temporal heterogeneities, they will require more general field observations and monitoring network data in order to calibrate and validate models. Because feedbacks and thresholds “cascade”, this suggests the necessity of tiered monitoring networks comprising remote sensing, meteorological stations, synoptic measurements, and long-term experiments (e.g. LTER) from the highly localized to the Pan-Arctic.

The role of pre-conditioning

A “gathering storm” of coordinated conditions involving several Arctic domains—its physics, chemistry, biology and human elements—may be necessary to produce anomalous behaviors of sub-systems that eventually accumulate or cascade as new, unique levels of a coordinated extreme.  Alternatively, the system may exhibit adaptive capacity and resist change, with sub-systems displaying sufficient plasticity and/or resilience. Understanding how a system that has evolved previously under a particular condition but now must confront new realities constitutes an important research challenge.

Proximate forcing and tipping points

Once a system is pre-conditioned by an intensifying trend or increased variability, a small or incidental change in but one (or a small number of) key component(s) may be all that is necessary to strengthen a move toward a new system state. In the Arctic, the balance between frozen and unfrozen states, and thus crossing the freezing point threshold, may act as such a key controlling variable. One prime example is the sea ice-albedo feedback, which may ultimately be the most critical tipping point for defining whether the Arctic, at least temporarily, will act as a net accumulator or distribution point for planetary heat accumulation arriving from the lower latitudes. The loss of such frozen states in turn produces subsidiary tipping points in other sub-systems.  In the biological domain, the apparent lack of refugia, for example, for life forms dependent on ice at particular times of year (e.g., polar bears), may have insufficient genetic diversity to keep pace with the physical changes. In contrast, a more ice-free Arctic ocean could completely change its biology from a benthic to a pelagically-dominated ecosystem. A temporary (or permanent) greening of landscapes has been observed over large areas of tundra, but the reverse has also been recently observed, and understanding why this abrupt change in direction has occurred remains an open systems-level question. Warming can also invoke at least a temporary wetting of thermokarst lakes, but later drainage and increased susceptibility to drying, making land-based ecosystems more susceptible to drought and fires.

Buffering and resilience

Tipping points may also fail to materialize and the causes of such resilience are likely to be embedded in how Arctic systems are interconnected. This refers not only to process-level connections but also the spatial architecture of the Arctic. Thus, we can see latitudinal and altitudinal correlates to buffering (i.e., systems will inherently remain colder at higher latitudes and elevation). There are also inherent differences in continental versus marine-dominated climates (e.g., rain-on-snow events more likely to occur in Svalbard than central Siberia). There are also temporal components, with vulnerability essentially becoming a seasonally dependent phenomenon.  For example, rain-on-snow events are inconsequential during the fall season but hardly so during calving season for ungulates.

Societal implications of changing extremes

The demand for knowledge from the Arctic scientific community is increasingly being dictated by systems-level knowledge, the need for mission-directed and policy-actionable information. The curiosity-based science agenda is thus sharing the spotlight and policy-driven demands for information are arguably moving outside the comfort zone of researchers. This evolving research agenda will ultimately support a long list of literally trillion-dollar issues. These include research topics that have been addressed by the research community but now have more of a flavor for practicality, for example, research on understanding climate change, but now embedding elements of climate adaptation and mitigation. New research challenges are at the same time emerging as the Arctic warms and extreme events become ever more evident. One issue is that of trans-Arctic shipping, which on the one hand emerges as an opportunity associated with the loss of sea ice, but also challenges business interests as increased access comes with the price tag of coping with unique weather extremes (like fog and increased storminess), incomplete bathymetric data, capricious sea ice behavior, all of which conspiring to increase business risk. The same is true of harvesting newly accessible Arctic resources, and thus not necessarily yielding simply benefits (e.g., reduced integrity of ice roads needed to access fossil fuel extraction sites). There are also issues of Arctic ownership and sovereignty. Losses of permafrost affect infrastructure integrity and, together with reduced sea ice increasing wind fetch, elevating the risk of coastal erosion. Losses of snowpack affect Arctic biodiversity, ecosystem function, and ecosystem services, which in turn impact wildlife, indigenous identity and culture.

Arctic systems and policy responses

Beyond the biogeophysical changes to the Arctic system, a recognition that there are more direct, societally critical impacts will likely motivate broad-scale, and perhaps even internationally coordinated decisions to be made. Scenario-building and visions for an 21st century Arctic will, of necessity, require systems-level perspectives, insofar as a decision in one domain (e.g., boreal forest management or reducing the emission of black carbon) will likely reverberate throughout many different atmospheric, terrestrial, oceanic components. Given the Arctic amplification of global temperature trends, and an intensification of its hydrologic cycle, any consideration of carbon emission controls or sequestration or taxes has the Arctic as an early sentinel of the effectiveness of such interventions, that is, if sufficient systems-level knowledge and observational underpinnings are in place to detect and appropriately interpret the impact of such human intervention. A changing Arctic will also be attractive to the global investment community and the permitting of infrastructure, if not based on sound knowledge of the risks and opportunities inherent in the placement and operation of such, will be a recipe for potential disaster (e.g., enhanced trans-Arctic shipping w/o the requisite monitoring of dangerous weather extremes or ice conditions impeding safe navigation). The identification of resource management and resource extraction priorities also require understanding of the long-term vulnerability and resilience of the very systems that are targeted for use by society. The biogeophysical and human context of such activities embedded within a changing system will be necessary to ensure sustainable use of the Arctic.

Summary: What can we learn about the system by studying its extremes?

A systems-level perspective provides a convenient rallying point for the research community. Asking systems-level questions and posing systems-level hypotheses will force consideration of what otherwise could devolve into questions posed about individual sites or single components of the Arctic,. Some examples: Is there evidence for consolidated behaviors in the Arctic system? If so, what are key dynamical linkages that produce such coordination and how does their strength wax and wane through time? What are the positive and negative feedbacks that give the system integrity or failure to re-establish itself after change? Are there inherent space and time scales at which the key feedbacks operate and that will guide where the emphasis of researchers must be positioned to most effectively understand the system? To what degree is the current system state dictated by past and contemporary trends? And, perhaps most importantly, Are there ways in which human decisions could slow, halt or reverse the fundamental and deleterious changes we see unfolding in the Arctic system?

The essential necessity of systems-level thinking

A brief overview of past and current systems-level research programs for the Arctic will reveal that they have existed but not been sustained.  Current activities are piggy-backed onto existing programs (e.g., CCSM Arctic working group) or represent highly specialized models (e.g. Navy) and a concerted systems-level, interdisciplinary Arctic research program is lacking. From the preceding discussion, the need for such a dedicated program should be self-evident.


Venue: Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, Washington, DC

Dates: 17-19 April 2017

The central scientific question that will motivate this Workshop will be a focus on multiple “currencies” within the system (i.e., water, energy, carbon and nutrients) and how they interact to produce systems-level behaviors.

Please check back soon for more information about this event!