Expert Report

The Arctic in the Anthropocene: Emerging Research Questions (2014)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

With rapid change unfolding throughout the Arctic, the need for actionable Arctic science has never been greater. A warming climate is reshaping Arctic ecosystems, bringing changes such as the loss of sea ice and glaciers, thawing of permafrost, and changing snow patterns. These shifts challenge Arctic citizens who must adapt to new environmental conditions, and have significant global implications. This report identifies emerging research questions important for understanding how environmental and societal transitions will affect the Arctic and the rest of the world. It also assesses what is required to address these questions, and points to the need to translate research findings into practical information that can help guide management and policy decisions.

This video was made to highlight the findings of the report.

View the archived video of a webinar held about this report here.

Key Messages

  • The rapid pace of Arctic change is raising new questions and driving new interactions. The report identifies questions focused on the evolving Arctic that investigate the transition to the "new normal" of reduced ice and snow and the cascade of impacts this will have on systems that depend on frozen ground and water. Arctic societies are also changing rapidly, especially in the political realm as indigenous people achieve greater autonomy in some regions.
  • Many aspects of the Arctic have been unknowable, in large part because ice cover has blocked access and presented a major barrier to research. Loss of sea ice and technological advances now allow research in new fields, new geographical areas, and throughout the year. At the same time, rapid change can lead to the loss of geological features or cultural sites. Research is needed to explore what could be found as ice barriers diminish -- and what could be forever lost amid rapid change.
  • The Arctic is connected to the rest of the world by air and water currents, by animal migrations and invasive species, and by societal interactions. Climatic and meteorological connections in particular have far-reaching implications globally; for example, through rising sea level due to mass loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Outside pressures influence Arctic residents and the experiences of Arctic cultures can inform and be informed by those of indigenous peoples elsewhere.
  • Humans have lived in the Arctic for millennia, shaping their surroundings and making use of what the Arctic has to offer. But in recent decades, the human environment has shifted greatly, including political and economic integration with nation-states and less obvious trends such as the urbanization of Arctic peoples. Research is essential to understand the drivers of change, their implications, and options for response.
  • In order to identify new research directions when the need arises, arctic scientists will need long-term observations to identify changes and surprises without delay, and flexibility in funding to move quickly when a significant event occurs.
  • Enhanced cooperation, among researchers, between agencies, among nations, across disciplines, between Arctic residents and visiting scientists, and with the private sector, is needed to answer the emerging research questions identified in this report. No single agency, organization, or country can take on all research topics in the Arctic. Some research questions are too broad, or involve such extensive field efforts that they cannot be resolved solely by researchers from a single country, or supported by a single funding source.
  • Long-term observational data are essential for detecting change and for putting research findings into context. There are, however, insufficient long-term observation efforts underway and little coordination among those that do exist. It is thus difficult to distinguish large-scale patterns from localized ones, or to connect findings in one discipline to those in another.
  • Data management requirements have often been underfunded, resulting in poor quality metadata, a lack of long-term archiving, or other shortcomings that greatly reduce the utility of data. Our understanding of the Arctic as a system has evolved through the ability to compare data sets from disparate fields and regions in order to see connections and commonalities. But data management is often left to individuals or to separate efforts depending on agency, program, discipline, or other parameters.
  • New technologies allow new approaches to research in many fields. Among the most promising recent developments is a host of autonomous mobile sensors for the ocean and atmosphere that can be deployed relatively easily and inexpensively. At the same time, it is critical that current capabilities are sustained, including ships, satellites, and research stations.
  • Arctic research depends on sufficient human capacity, including scientists trained in the necessary fields who are capable of interdisciplinary collaboration. Additionally, Arctic residents can offer a great deal to research efforts.
  • Society's ability to address emerging research questions in the Arctic is closely tied to the way research funding is organized. Given the emerging research questions and implementation challenges identified in this report, pressures are growing for support of comprehensive systems and synthesis research, non-steady-state research, social science, stakeholder-initiated research, international research, and long-term observations.
  • Getting more from Arctic research may best be pursued by enhancing the ways we make use of that research. Collaboration is needed -- not just among scientific disciplines, or between scientists and those who live in the Arctic, but also with and between decision makers to better understand what they require and how scientific results are factored with other considerations to produce decision outcomes.