Scientists Expanding Network of Observers to Better Track Arctic Climate Change Impacts

Jul 15, 2016

A better system for observing Arctic climate change …


Scientists like Jeremy Mathis are building a new international system for observing the many changes under way around the circumpolar north triggered by the warming climate – changes that are being monitored by sensors on land, sea, air and space. And, by people – such as residents of remote villages.

Warm temperatures in the Arctic have thawed permafrost soils and melted sea ice that had protected coastlines around the circumpolar north. Erosion caused by more frequent and powerful storms are now chewing away at coastlines, endangering villages that Native peoples have long inhabited.
Credit NOAA

These are the folks that need sustained observations in the Arctic the most,” says Mathis, because they’re the ones closest to the land, on which they depend for subsistence; and they’re the ones affected most directly by coastal erosion and other climate change impacts.

“… And they are also the ones that can readily support us in doing that,” because they know their territory well and can inform the science with traditional knowledge, says Mathis, who directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Research Program.

The Saildrone, a small autonomous vessel that serves as a platform for sensors to monitor conditions around the Arctic Ocean, is one of several new technologies researchers have begun using to improve climate science observations. It's shown here near the NOAA research ship Oscar Dyson.
Credit NOAA

He says an expanded observer system would include new technology, such as satellites and aerial and sea-going drones, and the capability to manage enormous amounts of data collected by those sensors.

“So we have to find effective solutions in dealing with the Big Data that’s going to be coming in,” he said.

Mathis says the new system is intended to enable scientists to more precisely track climate-related change around the Arctic and to recommend responses to mitigate and adapt to it.

“But we have to go beyond just pure observation ... We have to immediately move to a response mode,” he said.

Arctic Domain Awareness Center Principal Investigator Doug Causey, left, and Jeremy Mathis, NOAA's Arctic Research Program director.
Credit UAF

Mathis says the new network will work with many partners, including other federal agencies and international organizations like the Arctic Council’s Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks, along with universities and related organizations, like the University of Alaska Anchorage-based Arctic Domain Awareness Center, headed by UAA biology professor Doug Causey.

“We are a hub center that reaches out to researchers within the University of Alaska, other institutions, industries and nonprofits,” Causey said in an interview earlier this year.

Mathis, a former UAF oceanography assistant professor, says the expanded network also will work with the Local Environmental Observer Network operated by Anchorage-based Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

He says he and other organizers of the new observing network hope to create more partnerships in September during the first White House Arctic Science Ministerial meeting, in Washington.

Editor's note: this story was revised to correct the name of the Arctic Domain Awareness Center.