The U.S. Committee for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) developed a global change program that included the study of ice and snow, paleoclimate, and the polar regions; several members suggested that the Arctic could be a "test bed" for an integrated global change program in the United States and Canada. Between 1985 and 1988, members of the arctic research community briefed the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other national and international organizations on the importance of the Arctic in the global system and the value of an interdisciplinary arctic program as a developmental paradigm for global change science.


Two workshops on the Arctic in Global Change were convened, and the results were published in Arctic Interactions: Recommendations for an Arctic Component in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (1988).


In 1988, NSF funded the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) to organize a follow-on workshop to implement the arctic interactions program; the concept of an Arctic System Science (ARCSS) Program was developed. The ARCSS initiative was established by NSF as a contribution to the U.S. Global Change Research Program with the Division of Polar Programs (DPP, now the Office of Polar Programs) as the lead division.


Largely because of funding schedules, the implementation of ARCSS occurred at component and project levels. The already planned and funded Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) program was folded into the ARCSS Program along with a new program, Paleoclimates from Arctic Lakes and Estuaries (PALE). These two programs deal with records of past climate change in the Arctic with emphasis on records of the last 2,000, 20,000, and 150,000 years. The Divisional Advisory Committee included both programs in the DPP Long-Range Science Plan with staggered start dates and suggested funding scenarios. The GISP2 drilling program began in 1989, and PALE was implemented in 1991. In subsequent negotiation, NSF's Ocean Sciences Program assumed initial control of the oceans portion of the ARCSS Program.


The ARCSS research community devised a management structure for the integrated ARCSS Program which included Science Steering Committees for the individual components and an oversight and integrating panel. As part of the developing infrastructure, ARCUS established the ARCSS Program Office in 1991 at the request of NSF and arranged planning meetings for the overall ARCSS Program and for LAII.

The two ARCSS programs implemented in the early 1990s concern modern interactions and processes: Ocean-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions (OAII) and Land-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions (LAII). The Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI) organized workshops to develop a research plan for OAII; ARCUS did so for LAII. The results of these workshops were distributed to the scientific community for comment.

JOI published Arctic System Science: Ocean-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions (1990). ARCUS published Arctic System Science: Land/Atmosphere/Ice Interactions (1991) and Arctic System Science: Advancing the Scientific Basis for Predicting Global Change (1990) and convened a meeting of agency representatives and others to present the program. JOI published the Arctic System Science: Ocean-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions Initial Science Plan (1992), and the first OAII projects were funded.


NSF held the first LAII competition. Because the total cost of the interdisciplinary, integrated proposals greatly exceeded funds available, the NSF proposal-review panel selected certain portions to form an integrated but more limited Flux Study.


The ARCSS Panel considered the conceptual structure and implementation strategy of ARCSS. ARCUS supported meetings to further define OAII, LAII, the LAII-Flux Study, and PALE. The composition and name of the ARCSS Panel were changed in 1995, following recommendations from an ad hoc ARCSS community working group advising on the community representation and advisory aspects of the panel's role. The panel became the ARCSS Advisory Committee and, later, simply the ARCSS Committee.

ARCUS began coordinating discussions and community planning for a research program on the human dimensions of the arctic system in 1993.


NSF initiated Synthesis, Integration, and Modeling Studies (SIMS) in 1994. The ARCSS Committee developed recommendations for SIMS as a research emphasis within ARCSS in 1995 and published a community announcement for the 1 June 1996 NSF-OPP Arctic Research Program deadline.


ARCSS has three linked ongoing components. Ocean-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions (OAII) and Land-Atmosphere-Ice Interactions (LAII) deal with modern interactions and processes among ocean, atmosphere, and ice, and among land, atmosphere, and ice, respectively. Paleoenvironmental Studies work with the records of past climate change in the Arctic, emphasizing the last 2,000, 20,000, and 150,000 years. This component is implemented through two projects: Paleoclimates from Arctic Lakes and Estuaries (PALE) and Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), administered within the Earth System History initiative of the United States Global Change Research Program. A research prospectus for a fourth component, People and the Arctic: A Prospectus for Research on the Human Dimensions of the Arctic System (HARC), was published by ARCUS in 1997; announcements of opportunity are expected shortly for this component, which considers human activity as an integral part of the whole arctic system, both as a vital driver of climate change and as a link among the terrestrial, marine, and climate subsystems. ARCSS also supports the integration of research results across components and projects within ARCSS as well as with other arctic research programs through Synthesis, Integration and Modeling Studies (SIMS).