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Arctic Report Card: Update for 2016
Persistent warming trend and loss of sea ice are triggering extensive Arctic changes
Archive of previous Arctic Report Cards
2016 Arctic Report Card

Arctic Change – So What?: Linkages and Impacts

C. J. Vörösmarty1,2, L. D. Hinzman3

1Environmental Sciences Initiative, Advanced Science Research Center, City University of New York, USA
2Department of Civil Engineering, The City College of New York, USA
3University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA

The Arctic is an integral part of the larger Earth system where multiple interactions unite its natural and human components. As is amply demonstrated in each annual installment of the Arctic Report Card, the domain is collectively experiencing rapid and amplified signatures of global climate change. At the same time, the Arctic system’s response to this broader forcing has, itself, become a central research topic, given its potential role as a critical throttle on future planetary dynamics (NRC 2013, 2014). Changes are already impacting life systems, cultures and economic prosperity and continued change is expected to bear major implications far outside the region (ACIA 2005, AMAP 2012, IPCC 2013, Cohen et al. 2014). Ongoing assessments of how the system is wired-together and how sensitive its environment is to change suggest that there are important interconnections and possible feedbacks but these remain highly uncertain (Francis et al. 2009a; Hinzman et al. 2013). We have entered an era when environmental management, traditionally local in scope, must confront regional, whole biome, and pan-Arctic challenges but also requires policy development that crosses scales and boundaries from villages to international partnerships.

Because of these rapid, if not unprecedented, rates of change, the Arctic is today home to a suite of literally trillion dollar impacts—both positive and negative. Examples are as varied as global trade and the opening of new trans-Arctic shipping routes, increased or impeded access to land and ocean-based resources, changing ecosystems and fisheries, upheaval in subsistence resources, damage to infrastructure as on fragile coastlines, Arctic sovereignty and national security concerns, climate change adaptation and mitigation. While issues may appear to exist in isolation, they are emerging very much within the context of an evolving, integrated Arctic system defined by interactions among its major natural and social sub-systems. By ‘system’ we mean the constellation of major and subsidiary components residing within the Arctic atmosphere, ocean, land that comprise and, through interacting processes, define the physical, biological, chemical and energetic state of the Arctic that vary over both space and time.

In the U.S., a recent raft of strategic planning documents point to the Arctic as a key arena of national concern; from science, policy and private sector perspectives. Recent administrations have recognized the importance of the region, as evidenced by several high-level planning documents and executive orders (President Bush 2009; President Obama 2014, 2015, IARPC 2015). US Arctic Research Commission Goals and Objectives Reports, which help to prioritize agency and interagency investments in Arctic research, have in recent years reported on several systems-level challenges (e.g. the apparent paradox of increasing precipitation with simultaneous drying across the Arctic landmass). Accelerating U.S. interest in the Arctic is reflected in its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2015-17) and its four themes, which are all arguably systems-level issues: Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; building Arctic community resilience; recognizing and responding to climate change; raising Arctic awareness as a fundamental part of the Earth’s natural systems and economy.

A systems-level understanding is clearly necessary to articulate the role of the region in the broader Earth-system (the fundamental science question) and in the global economy (a key societal question). Such understanding is an important precursor to identify future trajectories of the Arctic, evaluating its resiliency and long-term sustainability. Systems-level understanding is also required to assess both the short-term and legacy impacts of specific human decisions, by analyzing the feedbacks they invoke on natural, physical, social, and economic sub-systems and the still newer decisions that may possibly be contemplated (or actually executed) in response. Relevant examples include management of wildlife populations through hunting regulations and the consequent impacts on plant biomass (Russell and Gunn, 2012 and Joly and Klein, 2016), with plausible additional impacts on permafrost or even microbial dynamics that feedback to emission of radiatively important gases like methane. While curiosity-based research will be fundamental to progress, a science agenda additionally co-generated through a partnership among scientists, policymakers and stakeholders will help ensure that we develop the tools and understanding that can address evolving societal concerns. The capacity to analyze the “decision-impact-next decision” space has yet to be developed and would represent an excellent partnership of scientific knowledge providers and consumers.

One ideal example of how a systems perspective is absolutely essential to addressing both a scientific and societal challenge is the ever-present issue of community relocation as a result of rapidly eroding Arctic coastlines (Forbes et al. 2011). Although the dilemma of threatened coastal communities goes well beyond the Arctic, the interconnected processes and their common sources traceable back to climate warming are distinct from those in more temperate regions. Beach erosion in the continental U.S. is generally related to changing sediment sources, suspension and deposition, and complicated by rising seas, increased frequency of storminess, and associated storm surge. The integrity of Arctic shorelines is similarly compromised, but additionally by the loss of protection afforded by disappearing sea ice, which normally tempers both wave action and the effect of storms, and by coastal permafrost degradation. The Earth systems challenge thus requires an understanding of meteorology, sea ice dynamics, oceanography, and permafrost dynamics.

A relocating community is also critically defined by cascading human actions. Although in many cases, immediate action is of paramount concern (Alaska IAWG 2009), delays are more the norm (GAO 2009) and arguably arise from insufficient knowledge of indigenous and modern social systems function. Until very recently, villagers lived a more mobile lifestyle, dictated by environmental change or subsistence pressures, and resided in semi-permanent homes easily abandoned and reconstructed elsewhere. With the benefits of modern infrastructure like schools, clinics, washeterias, electrical, water delivery and sewer systems, relocating today has become a much more imposing and expensive challenge. Communities site themselves according to some geographical advantage, access to protection or food resources, and associated cultural traditions. And while alternative sites may share the same intrinsic advantages, they may suffer similar, though unforeseen vulnerabilities from future erosion. Successful repositioning of communities also requires knowledge of formal governance systems (e.g. when securing federal support for shoreline protection and assistance in relocation), which requires astute leadership at both federal and local levels.

From the systems perspective we can see these as linked cultural-environmental issues, in the arena of social science, indigenous knowledge, economics, law, community management and federal bureaucracy. The socio-environmental challenges must be integrated with civil, mechanical and coastal engineering analyses and project design, all of which depend upon the geological, hydrological, geophysical, meteorological, climatological, oceanographic, and sea ice sciences. Attempting to resolve community problems without considering the full human-environment system is likely to lead to failure, with consequences that could last for generations.

Despite its organization around reports of individual Arctic sub-domains, the Arctic Report Card itself contains many intriguing examples of change reported in its time series that could be interpreted in the context of system processes and feedbacks. The 2015 Report Card, for example, showed that melt dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet cannot be well explained without reference to atmospheric pressure anomalies and thus ocean-atmosphere connections associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) (Tedesco et al. 2015). The ongoing loss of sea ice, while progressive and of great concern to scientists and policymakers, is at the same time creating positive and negative changes in ocean biology, including net primary production, but a full appreciation requires knowledge on how these changes play out with respect to position along shelves, freshwater stratification, nutrient upwelling, changes in cloudiness, etc. (Frey et al. 2015). These questions are further complicated by considerations of increased river flows, glacial melting, and ocean acidification. Broad-scale tundra “greening”, recently transformed to “browning”, requires an understanding of permafrost-water relations, plant-herbivore interactions, the trapping of blowing snow and an interpretation of how these macro-system changes relate to microcosm experimental responses to heating (Epstein et al. 2015). Duffy et al. (2005) demonstrated a link between atmospheric-ocean variability and the severity of the Alaskan fire season. Consequent impacts on caribou and migratory waterfowl are likely to play a role in future approaches to wildlife management.

The research community has over the last decade progressed substantially with the observational underpinnings that could be used to decipher major processes of the Arctic system (witness the Report Card, Hinzman et al. 2013, Jeffries et al. 2013). In addition, there are many new studies into the fundamental mechanics of system sub-components, for example, improved understanding of sea ice dynamics (Kwok and Untersteiner, 2011), functioning of marine (Kedra et al. 2015) and terrestrial ecosystems (Raynolds et al. 2014), permafrost hydrology (Liljedahl et al. 2016) and climate (Richter-Menge and Mathis, 2016). Furthermore, there are calls from within the Arctic agency funding community noting the marked absence of systems-level proposals to date (Swanberg and Holmes, 2013). And, perhaps most importantly, there is a demand from policymakers requesting more comprehensive visions of Arctic change (Balton, 2014). We have yet to put these productive “forces” into action to motivate a more complete understanding of system connectivity and interdependencies and where the Arctic will progress in the future, with or without human interventions. We see that the time is ripe to catalyze systems-focused studies.

What might be some of the approaches to systems-level analysis? The Arctic research, education, and policy communities have been developing new perspectives aimed at systems-level questions, including ARCSS-funded synthesis activities like the Big Sky workshop (Overpeck et al. 2005), planning within the ARCSS Committee and a consensus dialogue begun in 2005 by >100 Arctic natural and social scientists, technologists, educators, policy and outreach experts (ARCUS 2007). NSF-ARCSS SIMS and OPERA were programs designed to support Arctic systems-oriented thinking and synthesis. By their very nature, SEARCH and ISAC (Murray et al. 2010, ARCUS 2014) are motivated by Arctic systems research themes and integrated modeling and observational approaches. Synthesis studies like Francis et al. (2009) and Overpeck et al. (2005) have taken the form of explorations, environmental “Gedanken thought experiments” exploring potential linkages and feedbacks, while Hinzman et al. (2013) explored the implications of Arctic system change drawn from literature-based integration of observations and model results. Posing research questions beyond the reach of individual researchers (NRC, 2014) also can reveal higher-level emergent properties of systems. Recognizing that systems exist at multiple scales, how such processes accumulate (or not) from subsidiary scales to full system behaviors is a critical research challenge (e.g. how plot-level terrestrial biogeochemistry is consistent with pan-Arctic carbon fluxes, USARC 2010). Attribution studies can be used decipher causal chains associated with natural “experiments”, for example, Eurasian River discharge anomalies linked to an extreme springtime melt event (e.g., Rawlins, 2009).

Recognizing that the Arctic is a coupled water-energy-biogeochemical system embodies the notion of “currencies” that define budgets, fluxes, feedbacks and hence facilitate the study of system behaviors. For example, the water cycle is linked to energy cycling through the energy required for phase changes, to the carbon (C) cycle through controls on CO2 and CH4 in ecosystems, and to the nitrogen (N) cycle through controls on its transport and availability for plants and microbes. In turn, water, energy, and N are linked to C by limiting tissue stoichiometry and plant growth. These cycles are all changing concurrently across the Arctic, with change in one component reverberating strongly into others (e.g. sea ice loss interacting with Arctic vegetation [Bhatt et al. 2010] or the polar jet stream [Francis et al. 2009b]). Finally, high resolution, full-system Arctic system models (Roberts et al. 2010) have been argued for. In the context of policymaker engagement, however, simpler models (of intermediate complexity) (Eby et al. 2013) could also be useful, with the advantage of being far less computationally intensive to set-up and run and hence enable co-design of scenarios with policymakers with rapid turnaround on “what-if” questions.

In addition, we see frameworks that support systems research as an important Arctic science infrastructure investment. We speak here of a collaboratory concept (Bos et al. 2007) to forward systems perspectives, methods, and tools for analysis of multi-scalar, multi-dimensional, trans-disciplinary issues in the Arctic. An Arctic Systems Collaboratory by its very nature would constitute a networked community resource, organized as an interactive virtual or actual environment to execute basic research as well as to co-design a science agenda with the Arctic stakeholder community.

In conclusion, meeting the major scientific challenges associated with understanding and forecasting the future state of the Arctic system will require balanced advances in (1) the scientific state-of-the-art and (2) the mechanisms to overcome the traditional disciplinary boundaries, which—in our view—have slowed earlier progress. One interesting example of the existence of such boundaries is this very report. We recognize the Arctic Report Card as an important synthesis of observations that can be analyzed on their own terms (inductive studies) but also critical for model parameterization, validation, establishing initial conditions and boundary forcings (deductive/modeling approaches). We see, however, an important missed opportunity to convey the essence of Arctic change, namely Arctic system change. For this reason, we recommend that the Report Card move purposefully into the domain of systems-level issues. With a small augmentation of its content, it could begin making strides toward breaking down the disciplinary boundaries reflected in its current chapter orientation. One structure might be to feature, along the lines of the examples presented earlier, short pieces on land-atmosphere, ocean-atmosphere, and land-ocean connections. Given the synoptic character of the Report, it has become an essential part of the science-to-policy arsenal, and we make our recommendation in the spirit of increasing its public policy impact.


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November 15, 2016

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