Water Peace at Home Water Peace in the World


Research in a Changing Arctic Must be Prioritized


October 8, 2019 By  & 


The Arctic is changing, and it’s changing fast, even faster than models had predicted. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found with strong confidence that the Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the global average.

Storms that used to dissipate once they reached cold Arctic waters are now not only not losing power, they are in fact becoming reinvigorated by the higher temperatures. Land-fast ice that has traditionally buffered coastal communities from storm surge no longer provides dependable protection, because it is less abundant. The amount of land-based ice melt that occurred in Greenland in July 2019 alone—the hottest month on record—was not forecasted to happen until 2070.

Research Gaps

The fundamental climatology of the Arctic is changing rapidly and will continue to change in the coming decades. Understanding and quantifying this changing climatology is foundational to producing reliable short- and long-term predictive models and forecasts for decision makers.  While the U.S. Arctic is host to considerable maritime and some land-based research efforts, the lack of research infrastructurelogistical difficulties with accessibility, and low prioritization of the region in the national agenda have prevented year-round scientific measurements and effective monitoring of a wide array of coastal and ocean conditions and activities.  In response to this invigorated need for research, we recently issued a report that reviews the High Arctic Research Center (HARC), a recently proposed, state of the art research center in Alaska. 

Upping the U.S. Game in the Arctic

The proposal to create the High Arctic Research Center comes at a time that the Department of Defense (DoD) has renewed interest in Arctic research as it seeks to gain full operational capability in extreme cold environments. As former Secretary of Defense Mattis stated, the United States needs to “up its game in the Arctic.”

Dramatic Arctic change is making it harder to predict both near- and long-term weather and sea ice conditions, thereby increasing risk to operations in the region. As the Department of Defense restores its Arctic operational capability and cold weather operations, it will need the type of Arctic test and evaluation facilities that HARC will provide. Multiple government agencies, ranging from the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cite a need for more coordinated Arctic research to fill the numerous existing knowledge gaps. A research station providing year-round, multi-domain access like HARC could address these varying global research needs, while also co-producing research of local significance with Alaska native corporations and communities.

Proposed High Arctic Research Center

The proposed center could serve as a physical launch pad for scientists, giving them year-round, multi-domain access for research, development, Arctic technology testing, and domain awareness. The proposed HARC location at Oliktok Point has the unique capability of having Federal Aviation Administration airspace dedicated to facilitating research flights 775 miles due north across the Arctic Ocean. In addition, the development of roads and fiber-optic cables, as well as shoreline access to the Arctic Ocean across the Prudhoe Bay area, provide the physical and digital connections required to support the research at HARC. Scientists based at HARC would be strategically located to deploy mobile sensors and unmanned systems that will enhance our understanding of both atmospheric and surface/subsurface Arctic Ocean conditions extending northward across the Beaufort Sea.

Research and extensive real-time observations in the Arctic could help researchers collect data that would fill critical gaps in monitoring, providing real-time information, enhancing forecasting, and creating better simulations for planning purposes to serve security and commercial enterprises. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard relies on weather and ice forecasts to carry out its many missions, which require rapid response. These forecasts require rigorous understanding of changing Arctic climatology.  Reliable weather, sea state, and sea ice forecasts are essential to assuring safe and effective Coast Guard emergency response, including search and research missions.

Rapid Arctic change is creating growing impacts on communities, infrastructure, and operations across national boundaries, and North American Arctic countries face multiple shared challenges, such as stability of coastal infrastructure and safe maritime operations. Canada recently established a High Arctic Research Station and has expressed a desire to enhance cooperation and coordination in the North American Arctic with the United States and Greenland. Plans to build an international Arctic research station in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, were also recently announced. 

The proposed High Arctic Research Center may help the United States be better equipped and more situationally aware to deal with issues related to sovereignty, security and matters of domestic and economic importance. Such a platform would provide complementary capabilities to existing U.S. facilities at Toolik Lake and Utqiagvik.  It would also foster international collaboration, knowledge exchange, and diplomacy.

The combined efforts of multiple North American research centers would be a strategic and synergistic move towards more informed policy decisions, especially in regard to emerging security concerns in the Arctic, such as the growing interest of China and Russian remilitarization of the Arctic. The United States has long been a leader in scientific and strategic research. it is time to significantly strengthen that leadership in the Arctic.

Sherri Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the Center for Climate & Security, and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security).  

Peter Davies is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, and an Emeritus Director at Sandia National Laboratories.

Marisol Maddox is a Research Assistant at the Wilson Center, and an International Security graduate student at George Mason University.

Clara Summers is a Research Assistant Intern at the Wilson Center, and a graduate student studying International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.

Sources: Department of Defense, Forbes, Government of Canada, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Reuters, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System. 

Photo Credit: Sunrise and fog in the Arctic, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canad, January 2014. Courtesy of Flickr user Fiona Paton.


Share Your Comments

Only members can comment, Click here to sign up for free right now

(Your e-mail address will not be published)
Submit Review
No Comments Yet