Pew Report Recommends More Science in U.S. Arctic Ocean

The Pew Environment Group and Ocean Conservancy have released a white paper recommending further research to inform conservation and development decisions in America's Arctic Ocean. The white paper, authored by 14 arctic marine ecosystem scientists, evaluates the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Circular 1370, which summarizes gaps in Arctic Ocean research. The white paper is divided into two main parts. The first part assesses the adequacy of the USGS report and deems it to have identified major gaps in scientific knowledge in an unbiased manner. The second part of the white paper emphasizes the need to synthesize research completed in various disciplines to provide a better understanding of the ecosystem as a whole.

Image courtesy of Pew Environment GroupImage courtesy of Pew Environment Group

Recommendations in the white paper include:

  • Making research data more accessible to the larger scientific community, policymakers, and the public. The white paper identified lack of access to data, some of it collected by oil industry scientists, as the most urgent issue emerging from the USGS report.

  • Establishing long-term monitoring programs, including a series of stations at which physical, chemical, and biological data are continually collected for understanding ecosystem change.

  • Identifying areas for protection. The white paper notes that enough information is now available to set aside certain critical habitat areas.

  • Incorporating local and traditional knowledge of Alaska Native groups to provide insight into environmental trends and relationships that might not be available from other sources.

For further information about the Pew Environment Group recommendations, and to download the white paper and the USGS report, please see the Pew Environment Group website, or contact Mary Engel (mengel [at] pewtrusts [dot] org).

Science and Conservation in the Arctic Offshore

By Henry Huntington
Science Director, Pew Environment Group Arctic Program

Loss of summer sea ice has increased access to arctic waters and warming is producing extensive biological change, making it more difficult to assess impacts from human activity in the short- and long-term. These rapid changes led the Pew Environment Group in 2009 to launch a new program promoting science- and community-based conservation of North America's Arctic Ocean.

In Alaska, Pew's work has focused primarily on offshore oil and gas activity. Pew advocates caution in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, including more research and monitoring prior to the start of drilling. A great deal of research has been done in arctic waters, and Pew applauds the efforts of the scientists, funding agencies, and industries that have made it possible. But there is still a great need to fill gaps in scientific knowledge identified in the recent U.S. Geological Survey report (Circular 1370).

Pew commissioned 14 scientists, all experts in arctic marine ecosystems, to review the USGS report and recommend concrete next steps. The recommendations, released in a September 2011 white paper, included establishing long-term monitoring programs, incorporating local and traditional knowledge, and making research data more accessible to the larger scientific community, policymakers, and the public.

Such knowledge is needed to guide sound decision-making. For example, knowing that walrus are hauling out on land is important, but planning long-lasting coastal infrastructure so that it does not harm walrus depends on knowing something about future walrus distribution. Current models and projections simply are not able to offer much insight into where walrus are likely to be hauling out a decade from now. It is essential to improve the ability to assess likely environmental patterns in order to allow for sound, informed planning. To address this need, Pew is working with scientists to prepare analyses on topics relevant to decision-making.

One irony of the proliferation of arctic research is that it has become harder and harder to collect all the relevant findings and try to make sense of what they tell us about the ecosystem as a whole. Preparing syntheses across many projects, disciplines, and ecosystem components is important, but the methods for doing so remain in development. To help in this area, Pew has also supported synthesis efforts, such as the Arctic Marine Biology Productivity Workshop in Fairbanks in February 2011, to examine likely trends in primary production in arctic waters.