Ocean Currents

Vanishing Arctic: How Less Research Could Eliminate The Last Frontier


In a recently published paper, climate scientists predicted that seasonal temperature patterns in the Arctic could shift the equivalent of 20 degrees latitude toward the equator by the end of the century. Roughly, this shift would be like the difference between the extreme northern tip of Quebec and New York City.

While such rapid changes would have significant effects on Arctic food webs, scientists don’t know exactly how these changes will play out or the extent to which they will alter Arctic ecosystems. While the recent paper focused on Arctic lands, the need for additional research and monitoring is even more acute in the offshore environment.

That’s why legislation introduced earlier this year by Senator Mark Begich of Alaska is so important. Senator Begich’s legislation proposes to establish a permanent program to support research, monitoring and observation of processes vital to the Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem. Such a program could lead to significant advances in Arctic marine science. The better we understand rapidly changing marine ecosystems, the more likely it is that we will make smart conservation and management choices in the region.

Senate Bill 272, “The Arctic Research, Monitoring, and Observing Act of 2013,” recognizes that the Arctic is undergoing profound changes. It acknowledges increased interest in oil and gas, commercial fishing, marine shipping and tourism there. Furthermore, it notes that this growing interest is happening even as the region is warming at twice the rate of the global average and seasonal sea ice is diminishing rapidly. Indeed, September saw the lowest Arctic sea ice coverage since satellite measurements began in 1979.

According to S.B. 272, a “lack of research integration and synthesis of findings of Arctic research has impeded the progress of the United States and international community in understanding climate change impacts and feedback mechanisms in the Arctic Ocean.” The legislation proposed several solutions, including:

  • Calling for the establishment of a permanent Arctic science program to conduct research, monitoring and observing activities in the region – both to promote productive and resilient ecosystems, and to facilitate effective natural resource management.
  • Proposing funding a merit-based grant program to support new scientific research and field-work in the Arctic.
  • Funding and supporting long-term ocean observing systems and monitoring programs in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Pacific.

The bill’s provisions could form the backbone of a long-term, integrated research and monitoring program for the Arctic—something that Ocean Conservancy has long advocated. A coordinated research, monitoring and observing program would help fill important gaps in our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems.

Such a program would help scientists identify areas that are critical to the functioning of the marine ecosystem. As the region responds to climate change and experiences the impacts of industrial activities, a long-term monitoring and observing program would also help scientists and decision-makers understand and adapt to the changes that are taking place.

Policy-makers and stakeholders need better information about Arctic ecosystems in order to make informed choices about activities such as oil exploration, shipping and commercial fishing. Better information can also help conservationists identify and promote management options that will help preserve ecosystem resilience even as the Arctic experiences rapid change.

The Arctic’s future is uncertain, and the management choices we make today will affect the region for years to come. We must make sure those decisions are based on sound science. For that to happen, the Arctic needs a long-term, integrated research, monitoring, and observation program. Senator Begich’s Arctic science legislation is a good start.

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