ARCSS Program | Synthesis Process
Update - 11 April 2008 : Announcing Launch of new Synthesis of Arctic System Science (SASS) Website
Arctic System Synthesis Encourages Program Integration
Article excerpted from Witness the Arctic - Spring 2004, Volume 11, Number 1
Is the arctic system moving to a new state outside the envelope of the natural glacial-interglacial cycle? This "Big Question" emerged from the week-long retreat of 25 scientists representing most of the scientific discipl ines working in the NSF Arctic System Science (ARCSS) Program. The August 2003 retreat in Big Sky, Montana, was an important step in the program's shift from component-oriented research to a primary emphasis on scientific synthesis.
Begun in 1989, the ARCSS Program's body of research now has matured sufficiently to begin assembling a true systems view of the Arctic. Participants at the February 2002 ARCSS All-Hands Workshop (see Witness Spring 2002) and the October 2002 ARCSS Committee meeting agreed that, with more than twelve years of research on various aspects of the arctic system, ARCSS is well-poised to undertake a focused synthesis. The fundamental goals of the ARCSS synthesis are to gain a more clear understanding of how the Arctic works as a system and as a component of the global system. The synthesis phase includes both a scientific synthesis and increasingly integrated implementation of the overall ARCSS Program.
The process of synthesizing the community's collective knowledge of the arctic system began at the All-Hands Workshop, with more than 300 ARCSS researchers participating, and continued with the Big Sky Retreat in August 2003. The retreat's goal was to distill and integrate available knowledge into a more holistic perspective of the arctic system. Scientists from a variety of disciplines investigating many components of the arctic system attended, and for most it was a tremendous learning experience--an opportunity to discuss commonalities and linkages with researchers who rarely cross paths: marine biologists with permafrost experts, atmospheric modelers with soil scientists, oceanographers with sociologists. This amalgamation of knowledge led to the realization that arctic change is pervasive, widespread, and dramatic, and hence to the "Big Question." Throughout the week, the participants worked together, each offering their own expertise and perspective, to determine whether, in fact, the Arctic is moving toward a new state. By the end of the week, participants reached near-unanimous agreement that the Arctic is likely moving outside the envelope of past experience---possibly toward a new state--and that we do not yet understand the implications for the Arctic, the global climate system, or human society. Participants also agreed that a state change could include major surprises and non-linearities, and that the implications could be wide-ranging and substantial for humans.
An important product from the retreat is a paper (in preparation) describing the motivation for the synthesis approach, as well as new insights from discussions at the Big Sky gathering. Discussions centered on the interwoven complexity of recent arctic change, how this fabric of change is tied to the larger global system, how it will unfold in coming years, and what the implications for humans may be.
Major questions raised at the retreat included: What are the primary drivers of the change? Which components of the system will experience the greatest impacts and what will they be? What are the dominant feedbacks among the key components, and will those feedbacks change if the Arctic shifts to a new state? Are we approaching a threshold in the climate system that may trigger an abrupt shift? Can we identify negative feedbacks that are strong enough to counteract observed changes during recent decades? Answers to these questions will not come from investigations targeting one component of the ecosphere. They require a broad, system-wide perspective, both past- and future-looking, that considers interactions among the ocean, atmosphere, biology, and human society.
Results from the Big Sky retreat were presented in a keynote address to the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) Open Science Meeting in October 2003 (see page 1) by Jonathan Overpeck on behalf of the ARCSS Committee and retreat participants. The presentation provided an overview of the ARCSS vision for synthesis and described the three main results from the retreat:
(1) a contrast between the arctic system state of today and the possible future scenario of a seasonally ice-free state,
(2) the current system-wide pattern of observed changes is a harbinger of a possible new system state, and positive feedbacks (and threshold responses) could accelerate state change in the future, and
(3) the research community should look outside the arctic system for thermostats and reining mechanisms that could retard or reverse arctic change.
The presentation ended with an outline of what the synthesis view could mean for society both within and outside the Arctic.