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Pan-Arctic Monitoring on the Agenda

Maribeth Murray, executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, says a Pan-Arctic Observing Network could help fill gaps in our understanding of the Arctic and lessen the environmental, social and economic impacts of rapid Arctic change.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Unmistakable changes are underway across the Arctic. Although many researchers are interested in studying the region, observations tend to be sparse, cover a limited time span or lack coordination. Maribeth Murray says there’s a strong argument to enhance long-term, multidisciplinary observations throughout the Arctic: Our future well-being depends on understanding the magnitude of the changes ahead of us.

Murray is the executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, based at the University of Calgary, and a co-organizer of the 2016 Arctic Observing Summit, a biennial event that was held in Fairbanks, Alaska in March. The institute is Canada’s oldest Arctic research institute, established in 1945 to conduct research on all aspects of the North American and circumpolar Arctic, as well as to preserve and archive materials and make them available to the broadest possible audience.

At the summit, delegates from 30 countries called for better monitoring of the Arctic. A Pan-Arctic Observing Network would track Arctic change across space and time, and incorporate the best of indigenous knowledge and scientific approaches.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Murray about the importance of a Pan-Arctic Observing Network and how it could help people in the North – and around the world – adapt to future climate change.

Arctic Deeply: What are some of the challenges associated with doing Arctic research?

Maribeth Murray: The number one challenge for working in the North is cost. If you’re working with a community, the expenses are manageable for the most part, but if you’re trying to do atmospheric research or oceanographic research, it requires a lot of expensive infrastructure, ships and different kinds of instrumentation. That requires a lot of coordination among different communities of scientists, different governments and national organizations.

Arctic Deeply: Could a unified effort to observe the Arctic make those challenges more manageable?

Maribeth Murray: Absolutely. If we really want to understand what is happening in the North, we need to collect good observational data so that people can manage their daily lives and so that operational agencies like the coast guard have the information they need. It requires us to collaborate across national boundaries. The amount of work that needs to be done is far too great for a single nation to undertake.

Arctic Deeply: You’ve called for an international effort to observe the Arctic. What does that look like?

Maribeth Murray: There is already a lot of observational infrastructure out there. We have satellites, other kinds of remote sensing, weather stations and icebreakers with instrumentation on them. But we are now figuring out where the gaps in the information are, who is best positioned to fill those gaps and how do we coordinate that across countries, disciplines and communities.

For example, Canada has a strong and effective program for ocean monitoring. The U.S. and European countries have very strong and effective atmospheric observing programs. What can Canada do to fill the gap around atmospheric observing and what can other countries do to fill the gaps around oceanic observing? There isn’t a big black space out there. We have infrastructure, but we need to fill in the holes.

Arctic Deeply: Does this go beyond the Arctic states?

Maribeth Murray: Observing the Arctic extends beyond the Arctic countries. We already see many countries like Japan, China and the E.U. that have a lot of infrastructure and investment to collect observational data on the Arctic. The strong interest in the North from these non-Arctic states is because the impact of Arctic environmental change is being felt in those countries, too.

Arctic Deeply: Where does indigenous and traditional knowledge fit into Arctic observations?

Maribeth Murray: We’ve come to a real crossroads in Arctic research where everybody understands that this has to proceed with the full participation and engagement of indigenous people. They have knowledge to contribute that fills information gaps and that information may take us in new directions that we might not have thought about from a purely scientific approach.

Indigenous organizations were full partners in putting together the Arctic Observing Summit and the discussions that happened there. The conference statement that we produced as a result of the summit does a good job of articulating the role of indigenous people, indigenous knowledge and indigenous organizations in moving this forward.

Arctic Deeply: There is an awareness that some groups have an abundance of information that is not public. Is there a way that the observing network could help provide access to this information?

Maribeth Murray: We’ve tried really hard to bring those different organizations into the discussions at the Arctic Observing Summit. Obviously there is information that some organizations, like the navy, are not willing to release right away. But the community also has to figure out how to make this information accessible and usable.

We have a big initiative at the international scale that is looking at all the sources of data and information and working together to make it accessible and workable. But it is not a simple task. We have data collected over 50-60 years in all sorts of different formats. This is an area where the Arctic Council can make clear statements about open access to information and sharing information, and they certainly have a policy and a statement on that.

Arctic Deeply: What do you need to make the Pan-Arctic Observing Network happen?

Maribeth Murray: The key piece is to build the international mechanism that will allow us to work more collaboratively. Right now, observational activities are funded within nations. There are operational agencies, like the Canadian Ice Service, that collect data every day, and then there are scientific research programs that collect data over a short time period, like 3–5 years.

While there are some big collaborative projects moving forward that will improve observation, the mechanisms for collaboratively funding them have yet to happen. You need that if you are trying to work across international boundaries.

For example, Canada can’t collaborate with the E.U. on a specific observing project, like putting buoys in the Arctic Ocean, if there is no joint funding available for it. Bilateral agreements can work, but often they’re just a one-off, and there are some international entities where countries have agreed to put money into a common pool, but the problem is that none of this is sustained. To establish the kind of observation network we’d like to see in the Arctic requires the commitment to do it over many years. It has to come from the higher levels of government.

Arctic Deeply: Does something similar already exist?

Maribeth Murray: The Global Ocean Observing System is a possible model. Countries have contributed resources to make sure that the instrumentation deployed in other parts of the world’s oceans are maintained and sustained over the long term. It is not outside the realm of possibility to do this.

Arctic Deeply: What sort of impact could a Pan-Arctic Observing Network have on adaptation in the Arctic?

Maribeth Murray: The impact would not just be in the Arctic, but globally. The dramatic change has really big global repercussions. Just think about global sea level rise, and the implications for many countries in lower latitudes and southern latitudes. It is going to be a huge problem. A comprehensive observing system can allow us to really understand what’s going on and help us to identify where we might have emerging issues, so we can build better projections of what might happen in the future so we can figure out how to respond and manage these changes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top image: NASA’s ICESCAPE mission studied the impact of changing Arctic conditions on the oceans’ chemistry and ecosystems in 2010 and 2011. Maribeth Murray of the Arctic Institute of North America says that a Pan-Arctic Observing Network could fill knowledge gaps and lead to better projections of future change. (NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

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