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Toward strategic, coherent, policy-relevant Arctic science

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Photo: Marco Tedesco / WWFPhoto: Marco Tedesco / WWF

This editorial by Clive TesarMarc-Andre Dubois, and Alexander Shestakov of the WWF Arctic Programe originally appeared in Science issue 6306.

Later this month, government science officials from Arctic and other nations will be in Washington, DC, invited by the White House to the first ever Arctic Science Ministerial meeting. The event is framed as a response to rapid climate-driven change in the Arctic and the impacts of that change on the rest of the world. While the White House has grasped the urgency of scientific responses to the unprecedented change gripping the Arctic, we think the Ministerial could aspire to more on the topics of “What science needs to be done?” and “How is it done?” There are opportunities to better shape aspects of the science that should be focused on the needs of Arctic policy and management in addition to fundamental science and science driven just by curiosity. Also critical is the question of how decisions the ministers make should be actualized, whether through the Arctic Council (AC), the most formalized body for Arctic cooperation, or other existing or new mechanisms.

There are many avenues where Arctic scientific agendas are developed, coordinated and implemented, such as national science programs (both in Arctic and non-Arctic states), the AC, global conventions (e.g. Convention on Biological Diversity), the UN bodies (e.g. World Meteorological Organization), regional initiatives and platforms (e.g. International Polar Year) and scientific associations (e.g. International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). There is a need to align and further coordinate across these efforts to improve efficiency, to better use scarce financial resources and research capacities, and to better address urgent needs. The AC is well-positioned to provide a platform to achieve this. While we respect and promote the role of knowledge systems of the Arctic’s Indigenous peoples, often called “traditional knowledge”, in informing Arctic policy, we focus in this article on scientific research.

Principles to drive Arctic science

Some of the principles below are being implemented by various institutions, others require further recognition and work.

Policy and management driven. There are many urgent policy and management questions awaiting Arctic science, such as “How can conservation respond to systems that are changing rapidly, where times and places identified as important to Arctic species are changing?” or “What science we need to fully implement the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan?”. The AC’s approach is to collect and collate existing science through different working groups. Though some AC assessments are collaborations between working groups (e.g. report on Identification of Arctic Marine Areas of Heightened Ecological and Cultural Significance), many are the result of a specific working group (e.g. Arctic Biodiversity Assessment) operating in a silo. When approved by Senior Arctic Officials and Ministers, these working group policy recommendations require implementation. This is when new science could be crucial. Thus implementation of Arctic Biodiversity Assessment recommendations requires new research on ecosystem services in the Arctic.

The AC should commission new research, through enhanced collaboration at the national level between its members, observers and other stakeholders, that may be necessary to answer pressing implementation questions raised from Council’s assessments and reports. There are good examples of when the AC managed to do so (e.g., Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic assessment), but there is a need to strengthen the process to bring together science and policy agendas. The Arctic countries should establish a cooperative research program supported by joint earmarked funding, to build knowledge and practice communities, and carry out research that follows up on recommendations of AC assessments and reports.

Coherent and strategic. Arctic science (and all who require its outputs) would benefit from a coherent agenda to avoid duplication and focus attention on the most urgent management and policy challenges. At present, there are a variety of agendas, mostly nationally oriented as in an increasing number of national Arctic strategies in both Arctic and non-Arctic states. There are efforts to design coherent approach outside the AC. The IASC, that brings together 23 countries with Arctic science programs, has coordinated a “Roadmap for the Future” to identify science priorities and coordinate research agendas. This “roadmap” involved some AC working groups, IASC is an observer at AC, and there are some informal and ad hoc attempts to promote research synergies between AC working groups. But these are based on a soft approach, with no institutionalized process to integrate and coordinate the research needs of the AC working groups in a coherent and strategic fashion with systemic engagement of non-Arctic players. AC has taken recent steps in this direction through hosting cross-working group meetings and talking more proactively with Observers. A truly strategic approach to needed science can be achieved only when governments know their long term vision for the Arctic with clear goals, targets and timeframe. This requires the Arctic Council to be clear on establishing its long-term strategic objectives and targets. The first step was to agree on a general high level vision for the Arctic which was provided by the “Kiruna Vision”.

Inclusive. Arctic science should be contributed to by all with an interest, including non-Arctic states, and commercial interests. For research by non-Arctic states to be coherent and strategic, they would need to be invited to help shape the Arctic science agenda. A draft Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation recently negotiated under the AC takes steps in this direction. In the case of commercial interests, scientific data (e.g., project background research, environmental impact assessments, and monitoring activities) are rarely publically shared. Such information gathered by commercial companies including through their research stations, for example, one recently established by Russian oil and gas giant Rosneft in the Kara Sea, should become public record as a condition of operating and license agreements.

Accessible and organized. It is important to build on existing efforts to make Arctic research available widely. Open access journals sometimes come with credibility problems, so cannot be the complete answer. The draft Agreement on Arctic Scientific Cooperation   promotes access to Arctic research, and there are platforms to organize and communicate scientific findings such as the Polar Data Catalogue. Agreeing to find ways to make research more accessible, e.g., in a searchable database, would be a worthy outcome of the Ministerial. Even better would be to make it understandable for the public and policy makers, e.g., via plain language summaries of important research, and translating research results (e.g. making Russian science accessible).

Social science. Natural science gets the bulk of money and effort spent on science in the Arctic. It is important to understand natural systems, but also to understand how they interact with human systems. Two coming AC products on resilience and adaptation have been designed as more holistic products, integrating natural science, social science and traditional knowledge. These are expected to help policy-makers respond to climate and development-driven change in the Arctic. The AC is compiling valuable information on economics and human development in the Arctic, often created by the AC Sustainable Development Working Group but is not systematically used by other working groups to enhance understanding of Arctic social-ecological systems.

Priority Topics

The process to organize Arctic research is fragmented. A strong mechanism is needed to steer some of the science agenda toward policy and management. The AC Task Force on enhancing Scientific Cooperation in the Arctic promises to facilitate movements of scientists and access to research sites as well as data exchange and young scientist engagement. But it does not do enough to set a coherent set of Arctic science priorities overall or to overcome challenges of coordinating research activities of the AC working groups.

The following areas for focussed research reflect primarily conservation priorities informed by urgency and lack of knowledge. We do not imply that they should be the only priorities.

Climate. Arctic change permeates almost every aspect of science in the region and beyond, including in mid-latitudes. Developing and implementing adaptation strategies appropriate to the scale and nature of anticipated changes will require reducing uncertainty in predicting change and increasing the capacity to model and downscale climate impacts across the region. There is a need to enhance understanding of water-ice-atmosphere processes, dynamics and interactions. Climate science must better grasp the implications of exchanges between Arctic change and adjacent and distant systems as well as more solid knowledge of ecosystem, species and human response to environmental changes.

Baseline Knowledge. Knowledge of population size, structure, status and life history of many Arctic species and status of Arctic ecosystems (including pollution levels and habitat conditions) should be a priority emerging from the science ministerial. Such baseline knowledge is essential to understand effects of climate change on species, including shifting food web structures, increased competition and predation as more temperate species such as orcas shift their range into Arctic waters, and fragmentation and loss of sea ice habitat. Many aspects of Arctic social science face the lack of even basic information; production should be a priority.

Trends and Indicators. Large-scale efforts are being made to integrate Arctic observation data through Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON), a network of observation networks ranging from human health, to meteorology, to biodiversity. For example, there is no trend data available for subpopulations of narwhals in the Arctic, making their response to climate change impossible to track and manage at a meaningful scale. More support is needed to establish and maintain collaborative monitoring and observations networks. These include new observation stations, coordination and data sharing between national and regional observation systems, expanding the set of objects/phenomena to be observed, and better access to observation data. There are multiple initiatives to develop indicators that rely on monitoring information, e.g., the AC Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program. These efforts should further focus to allow to evaluate trends of Arctic systems, provide for early warnings of significant change, and identify thresholds and tipping points.

Identifying Resilience. WWF believes that identifying Arctic resilience should be central in the scientific agenda, providing knowledge that informs hope, rather than despair. Recognizing that approaches to managing often-vulnerable Arctic habitats and species are not keeping pace with accelerating climate change, new research should instead locate sources of ecological strength and durability – ecosystem resilience – and look ahead to whether these wellsprings of resilience will persist in a climate-altered future. WWF developed a methodology – Rapid Assessment of Circum-Arctic Ecosystem Resilience (RACER) – for identifying and mapping places of conservation importance throughout the Arctic. WWF has applied RACER analyses to several parts of the Arctic. For instance, the Beaufort Sea ecoregion’s major river, the Mackenzie River in Canada, delivers ecologically important nutrients, sediments, and freshwater to the shelf and thus is a source of ecoregion-wide strength. Whether through RACER or a similar tool, identification of resilient features across the Arctic is a key for policy and management.

Hydrocarbons and the Environment. Long term oil and gas developments and plans are underway in the Arctic. Offshore developments are still being planned across the Arctic. Oil spills from shipping and oil and gas activities represent a threat to ecosystem health. The Arctic scientific community and key stakeholders should direct research toward a greater understanding of the effects of development and use of hydrocarbons in the Arctic, including effectiveness and impacts of responses to oil spills. Unknown impacts on the changing environment of oil spill response tactics such as in-situ burning or use of dispersants are major barriers to sound response decisions and regulatory developments in cold waters. Science that will help decision-makers develop Arctic-specific prevention measures should be prioritized.

Food Security. An important area of impact of change on Arctic peoples is food security. A report by Inuit Circumpolar Council – Alaska lays out a food security assessment process. Priority should be given to the study of ecosystems and biodiversity provisioning services, and the resultant health, social, cultural, and economic impacts of dietary change on Arctic Indigenous peoples.

Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services. Understanding ecosystem services and valuing them to inform decision making in the Arctic requires a global and coordinated scientific agenda. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for the Arctic: A Scoping Study, provides a foundation for work on delineating ecosystem services as a resource for policy making at a range of jurisdictional and spatial scales.

Arctic Conservation Measures. New management tools that can respond to foreseen and unforeseen regime shifts in ecosystems will be essential. Some such tools have been proposed, for example, seasonal spatial regulation of areas used by caribou during different life stages. These tools would vary according to species, downscaled climate projections, and other pressures on populations. As the patterns of sea ice formation and break up, and related pulses of life, are changing in both time and space, a research agenda for conservation science is needed to inform adaptive management.

Organizing to Deliver

This coming Ministerial is different from others, only focused on the science. The ministers, their advisors, and the Indigenous peoples’ representatives meeting in Washington will face questions of science principles and priorities, but also must consider how they can best organize to deliver on what is decided. It seems unlikely that the ministers will decide to make new treaties or memoranda governing all of these things, and then arrange to meet every year, and set up a structure to monitor their progress. Instead, key existing institutions should strive to align their Arctic research agendas. The AC, as a body that brings together most of the players in the ministerial, and that already has regular meetings and a capable secretariat, may lead such an integrative initiative.

We believe this science-focused ministerial group can appreciate the need to fuse new scientific research in the Arctic with a strategic approach that will support immediate and long term policy and management needs. WWF’s preferred solution for achieving this is to strengthen the AC, so it becomes more capable to set a policy-relevant science agenda and bridge it with implementation needs at national and international levels. This would be achieved by cutting through existing sectoral divisions within the AC, and creating instead three cross-cutting bodies, one responsible for science, one for policy formulation, and another for implementation.  The scientific body should incorporate current working groups and allow for cross-WG dialogue for setting research priorities focused on supporting AC recommendations and decisions. This committee should engage observers and others to discuss and coordinate research agendas. Results will be brought to policy committee for deciding on policy recommendations, while implementation committee will be responsible for translating them into actions.

Whatever the ministers decide, they should respond collectively in a coordinated manner to the urgent need for informing policy and management in a changing Arctic, mapping out a sustainable future that rests on a solid foundation of knowledge.

This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of the AAAS for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Science on 23 September 2016 (Vol. 353, Issue 6306, pp. 1368-1370), DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8198. Read the final version here.

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