White House Arctic Science Ministerial: A Sustained International Arctic Science Initiative?

October 18, 2016
Steven C. Bigras
Arctic Expert

Research in the Arctic has demonstrated the direct links between the Arctic regions and the rest of the planet. We know that these regions are feeling the effects of global climate change more intensely than anywhere else on Earth. Despite the growing body of knowledge, we do not yet completely understand the potential consequences of climate change in the Arctic.

To date, research results have shown that climate change has destabilized Arctic ecosystems including sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, mountain glaciers, permafrost, and vegetation. The impact of these changes on the physical and biological systems, as well as on people, is large and projected to grow.

The Arctic research community is very diverse and dispersed, and this has been the case for many decades. It is necessary to have a road map developed by the stakeholders, and supported by politicians, that will start focusing limited financial resources on priority areas.

In March 2007, an intensive international initiative known as the International Polar Year (IPY 2007-2008) was lauched with some 60 nations carrying out research over a twenty-four month period, from March 2007 to March 2009. It was the fourth IPY in the last 125 years. Cooperation and collaboration formed the cornerstone of the IPY research projects and resulted in unprecedented access to Arctic research infrastructure (e.g. research stations, observation and monitoring networks). Many nations expanded their national Arctic research programs, and made substantial investments to support their scientists. A number of extensive multidisciplinary networks were established. An extraordinary amount of information from this international effort was collected and analyzed.

IPY 2007-2008 left a large legacy footprint. It demonstrated the advantage of working together through bilateral and multilateral agreements, and it has inspired a new generation of polar scientists to keep pooling their resources, form solid partnerships, share information, and ultimately generate a greater understanding and appreciation for the Arctic.

It recognized the importance of the human side of Arctic research and the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in research. The IPY marks a beginning of an era where the people of the north are taking an active part in the research process, both in defining the issues; undertaking the research and monitoring; and communication of the results.

On September 28, 2016, an Arctic Science Ministerial was held at the White House that brought together ministers of science, chief science advisors, and other high-level officials from countries around the world, as well as representatives from Indigenous groups, to expand joint collaborations focused on Arctic science, research, observations, monitoring, and data-sharing.

The goals of the event are to advance promising, near-term science initiatives and create a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the longer term.

The Ministerial focused on four key themes:
• Understanding Arctic-Science Challenges and their Regional and Global Implications.
• Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing.
• Applying Expanded Scientific Understanding of the Arctic to Build Regional Resilience and Shape Global Responses.
• Using Arctic Science as a Vehicle for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education and Citizen Empowerment. (1)

It is encouraging to note that not only does the White House Arctic Science Ministerial have similar goals and research themes as IPY did, but also takes into account and builds on existing research results. And it regonized the important role the Arctic Council and The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) have in maintaining IPY initatives such as the Sustained Arctic Observation Network (SAON) in data collection and managerment. (2)

Moreover, it regonized the critical role Arctic citizens have in identifying and participating in all aspects of Arctic research, econimic development and decision making.

Political support for Arctic research over the years has been somewhat elusive at times. But the political leadership and collective commitment by all participants at the White House Arctic Science Ministerial shows a strong willingness to coordinating and cooperating on scientific research and advancing our collective knowledge of the Arctic.

The Joint Statement of Ministers produced by the White House Arctic Science Ministerial, and the Call to Action for organizations to get involved, will go a long way in bridging the disconnect between politicians, Arctic citizens, Indigenous organizations and the research community.

The White House Arctic Science Ministerial is an opportunity for Canada to play a leading role, as it did in IPY 2007-2008, to increase the understanding of the causes and consequences of rapid Arctic climate change all the while safeguarding its Arctic, providing opportunities for sustainable development, and representing the interests and concerns of Canadians as part of the global community.

Moving forward on the Ministerial long-term goals and identifying short-term actions is especially crucial now as it will provide policy makers and the international community with clear answers, backed up by solid scientific information.

How we undertake the research and communicate the results to decision makers has never been more important. This information will form the bases for the decisions and actions that governments will take as we attempt to mitigate, prepare for, and deal with the effects of climate change in the Arctic.