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A new federal collaboration on science of changing Arctic climate

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Scientists from more than a dozen federal agencies recently released a five-year plan for how they will attempt to collaborate and proceed with the myriad of changes being studied in the Arctic.

"The structure of the plan reflects an emphasis on human well-being," said Brendan Kelly, assistant director for Polar Science, Office of Science and Technology Policy, executive office of the President, who chaired a recent meeting of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee. "The Arctic is warming quickly and it has broad impacts on the people living in the Arctic as well as the people living outside the Arctic."

The plan, which will guide research collaboration and efforts starting in 2014, outlines seven over-arching categories ranging from sea ice and marine ecosystem studies to adaptation tools for sustaining communities. Public comments are being requested through June 22 on the report, which can be viewed and downloaded online from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs.

The study considered a wide variety of features and occurrences, and Kelly said comments on any of those were likely to be incorporated into the plan.

"If somebody suggests something we can't accomplish this time, it will likely show up in subsequent reports," he said.

Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, asked what was next, following the plan's publishing.

"How are you going to make the plan real and implement it in a meaningful way?" Ulmer asked.

Kelly replied that the very first step following the plan's publication is more outreach.

"My main criticism of our efforts to date is that we have not done as good a job as we could have in involving nonfederal sources," he said. "We need more input from the state of Alaska, from the indigenous peoples and from other stakeholders. Once the report is printed, we will be forming implementation groups for each of those seven sections, both inside the federal government and reaching out to partners outside the federal government."

Kelly and others in the meeting said budgets were tight across the board and one of the main ways a report like this plan helps scientists is by allowing them to know what different agencies are doing. That way, if one set of research can be of use to another agency, they can collaborate and share research costs at the same time.

"We will be broaching those conversations," he said. "It doesn't seem very sexy but it will matter a lot."

One participant in the meeting asked how the plan includes local and traditional knowledge sources in its science.

Igor Krupnik, of the Smithsonian Institution, said to his knowledge, this is the first such plan to explicitly include lists of indigenous knowledge, though he noted it was up to each individual agency to expand its outreach to polar residents. Others noted that while it was difficult to put a dollar value on subsistence resources, no one questioned the importance of those resources to the people of the Arctic, whether in Alaska or elsewhere in the circumpolar north.

One of the categories in the report was adaptation tools for sustaining communities.

"Arctic residents are adapting to new conditions created by rapid environmental change and diverse socio-economic stressors," the report reads, adding that the agencies involved will "assess strengths and vulnerabilities of Arctic communities facing the impacts of climate change and help provide residents, community leaders and policy makers with the knowledge to develop strategies for successful adaptation."

"The inclusion of local and traditional knowledge in research is of vital importance to protecting the indigenous culture in our region and helping to shape the land use with permitting and zoning," said Zach Stevenson, subsistence mapping coordinator for the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Authors of the plan noted it did not come with a fiscal note, despite the fact that it was clear one was needed.

"The needs for Arctic research are certainly not getting any smaller," he said. "That's appreciated by many, but how we fund that is quite a different story."

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino(at)reportalaska.com.