The New IARPC 5-Year Research Plan Outlines Arctic Research Goals

By: Sandy Starkweather, Executive Director of the U.S. Arctic Observing Network, and Simon Stephenson, Head of the Arctic Sciences Section in the Division of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation

The second comprehensive Arctic Research Plan was released December 2016 by the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) at a Town Hall meeting at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. The Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021 will advance Arctic research over the next five years and will be implemented in collaboration with Federal and non-Federal stakeholders through IARPC Collaborations, a web platform to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and report on research progress. IARPC welcomes diverse participation in the implementation of the plan and encourages all who want to work together to solve hard challenges in the Arctic to join IARPC Collaborations.

Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying the active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Photo courtesy of Brandt Meixell, USGS.Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying the active layer on the Arctic Coastal Plain in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska. Photo courtesy of Brandt Meixell, USGS.

Created by the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, IARPC is chaired by the National Science Foundation and is a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. IARPC plays a crucial role in advancing scientific knowledge and understanding of the changing Arctic and its regional and global impacts. Comprising 14 Federal agencies, offices, and departments, IARPC is responsible for developing and implementing five-year Arctic Research Plans in consultation with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the Governor of the State of Alaska, residents of the Arctic, and the private sector.

Thanks to IARPC Collaborations and the implementation of the initial Arctic Research Plan 2013-2017, there is now an unprecedented degree of interagency communication, coordination, and collaboration that, together with numerous individuals and organizations outside of the Federal government, has advanced Arctic science. Many of the joint research successes are documented in the IARPC annual reports and the 2015 Biennial Report.

While IARPC has advanced Arctic science since implementing Arctic Research Plan 2013-2017, much remains to be done. The United States is an Arctic nation, and America's Arctic—Alaska—is at the forefront of rapid climate, environmental, and socio-economic changes that are testing the resilience and sustainability of communities and ecosystems. The changes that are occurring in the Arctic also have global consequences.

Through the Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021, IARPC will continue to address the need for fundamental research that will increase knowledge and understanding for science-informed decision- and policymaking for Alaska, the Arctic region, and planet Earth.

Consistent with U.S. Arctic Region Policy and the National Strategy for the Arctic Region (NSAR), the new plan supports U.S. policy across a range of scales, from Arctic people and communities to the global scale in order to:

  1. Enhance the well-being of Arctic residents.
  2. Advance stewardship of the Arctic environment.
  3. Strengthen national and regional security.
  4. Improve understanding of the Arctic as a component of planet Earth.

The research described in Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021 is organized into nine research goals: health and well-being; atmosphere; sea ice; marine ecosystems; glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet; permafrost; terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems; coastal resilience; and environmental intelligence (observations, data integration, and models).

These goals are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are connected, with scientific advances in one area supporting advances in others. The interconnectedness of the goals, and some aspects of the complexity of the Arctic system that the Plan seeks to understand, are illustrated by the dramatically changing Arctic sea ice cover. For example, the end-of-winter maximum sea ice extent in March 2016 was the lowest value since the satellite record began in 1979. The end-of-summer minimum sea ice extent in September 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record. And the ten lowest minimum sea ice extent values in the satellite record have occurred in the last ten summers (2007-2016).

As sea ice extent declines, impacts that ripple through the environmental system illustrate interconnectedness: as the Arctic sea ice cover retreats further from the coast of Alaska each summer, the area of open water and the sea surface temperature increase. Consequently, coastal communities are becoming more vulnerable to increasing ocean surface wave heights, storm surges, inundation, and erosion accelerated by warming and thawing of coastal permafrost. These physical impacts are compounded by the social-ecological system response to the declining summer sea ice cover. For example, as the habitat of ice-associated species such as polar bears, seals, and walruses shrinks, the traditional ways of life and the well-being of coastal residents are affected.

The sea ice example above connects five goals in the Plan—health and well-being, sea ice, marine ecosystems, permafrost, and coastal community resilience and resources—and illustrates but one of many exciting opportunities for cross-cutting research into the Arctic System as Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021 is implemented.

The implementation of the Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021 will contribute to the delivery of the commitment the United States made at the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial to collaborate with 23 foreign governments and the European Union, and with Arctic Indigenous peoples, to further advance Arctic science.

IARPC and IARPC Collaborations are meeting the need for Federal agencies to work together and with a broad range of domestic and overseas stakeholders to inform decision- and policymaking. This will be achieved through full and open access to scientific data, by enhancing scientific knowledge and understanding, and improving environmental prediction capabilities for the benefit of people, communities and ecosystems in the Arctic and elsewhere on planet Earth. To join in this effort, request an account at IARPC Collaborations and get involved.