Polar Research Board Meeting

The Polar Research Board (PBR) held a two-day meeting at the National Academy of Sciences near the National Mall. Full profiles of all the members can be found here. The meeting addressed the following goals:


  • Review the PBR’s “Arctic Matters” initiative, which aims to capitalize on the U.S. Arctic Chairmanship to expand public understanding of the Arctic and Arctic change.
  • Discuss research implications of the rapid transformation at the poles, including destabilization of ice sheets and loss of the Earth’s cryosphere.
  • Provide updates on the National Research Council’s (NRC) Space Studies Board and the Decadal Survey to generate consensus from the scientific community on plans for future space-based exploration in the future.


Day One: June 2


Before the in-depth discussions about the subjects above, five board members gave updates about their agencies.


Simon Stephenson, Assistant Director of Polar Sciences at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), discussed the NRC’s five-year Arctic Research Plan, released in 2013. The plan outlines key areas of study the federal government will undertake to better understand and predict environmental changes in the Arctic.


Stephenson said his agency believed a five-year plan was the best time cycle, and complements a number of steps taken by the administration to enable data-driven and science-based stewardship in the Arctic region to improve coordination and outcome.


He stressed that data assimilation is the key to improving the models. NRC’s major adjustments to the plan related to the timing of different activities. Specifically, activities are now tiered to have different timing and priorities, but Stephenson was uncertain how this would look in the interagency space.


Amanda Staudt of the National Wildlife Federation commented that NRC’s report “The Arctic in the Anthropocene” also tiered actions, which forced them to think about how to integrate different spatial and temporal scales.


Stephenson also gave updates on an Overlap and Gap Analysis (not publicly available), which guides opportunities to integrate sustainable development into the decision-making process. Though sustainable development is active throughout the government, it is not currently a coordinated process.


Lastly, Stephenson provided an update on energy delivery to rural villages in Alaska. He said more agencies need to be involved in this process, especially for prevention preparedness and applied science.


Eric Saltzman and Scott Borg spoke on behalf of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Saltzman began with updates on NSF’s Arctic Program and the costly field activity of U.S., Canadian, Russian, and Swedish icebreakers. He said the Arctic community has not taken advantage of the Food Energy Water Nexus program. He also was displeased with the way NSF processes money.


“First it gets centralized, then pushed out,” he said. He used the European Union’s (EU) calls under Horizon 2020 as a better example of funding initiatives for research and innovation.


Dr. Larry Hinzman, Director of the International Arctic Research Center, used this discussion as an opportunity to bring up the need for North Atlantic Alliance between the U.S., Canada, and the EU. The alliance raised issues about U.S. and EU contracting projects, using the Belmont Forum, which supports Arctic sustainability through funding 12 multinational projects.


Hinzman also noted the Transatlantic Alliance discussions that took place during the 2015 Arctic Science Summit Week in Japan, which indicated a desire for a joint session between U.S., Canadian, and EU polar boards. He said it is important for these discussions to be kept open, especially with the budget uncertainty the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act poses on NSF’s funding ability (more on this topic can be found here).


Borg announced that NSF will soon release its Antarctic Research priorities, and will invite feedback, particularly about how to address field research challenges in the Antarctic. Borg also spoke about airlift issues in Norway where melting sea ice is deteriorating some of the country’s runways.


Dr. John Farrell of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) gave updates about his organization’s role with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).


Farrell spoke about the problems that arise when federal government plans do not have budgets attached. Regarding Arctic Policy development, Farrell recommended ways to improve data sharing in order to facilitate communications with Alaskans and the international community. He said the Obama Administration should follow a process where USARC sets goals and the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) adopts them.


Farrell lamented the Arctic Council’s annual budget falls into the “everything else” category, which amounts to about $400 million a year on Arctic research, “equivalent to the amount that is budgeted to the Department of Defense for marching bands.”


He also emphasized assessments over peer-reviewed research on USARC’s six priorities during the U.S. chairmanship period. This would take basic ocean chemistry and explain its potential impact on fishery economies and Alaskan lifestyles.


Tom Wagner and Jack Kaye, representing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, gave updates on NASA’s Operation IceBridge, and the conclusion of its 2015 Arctic Campaign.


The research effort collected data this past Arctic field season about sea ice and land regions that have been evolving rapidly over the past few decades. The campaign also collaborated with over a dozen international research organizations, resulting in two sea ice data products that will help scientists forecast how the Arctic sea ice will behave this summer.


In addition, NASA is currently analyzing data from airborne missions in Alaska to measure trace gases and is compiling a temperature profile of the ocean-ice interface in Greenland.


Kathy Crane gave updates about the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Arctic efforts.


NOAA’s 2014 Arctic Action Plan focused on weather and sea ice operations, of which foundational science played a very small role.


She also spoke about relations with the international community, specifically mentioning a Russian-American partnership, Canada’s atmosphere observatories, and the Pacific Arctic group (i.e. Japan, China, and Korea).


Crane said she signed a letter of intent to survey the areas where sea ice has melted the most in the Arctic, in order to understand the rapid changes in the Arctic in a more coordinated way.


Crane also reported NOAA has engaged in developing a new plan for a Climate Ecosystem Observatory in order to monitor changes in the northern part of the Chukchi Sea.


Finally, Crane briefly highlighted NOAA is actively engaged in the Arctic Council.

Arctic Council & “Arctic Matters” Panel Discussion


This panel discussion focused on news and updates related to the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. It also includes updates on the PRB’s “Arctic Matters” initiative, which aims to capitalize on the U.S. chairmanship as a window of opportunity for expanding public understanding of Arctic change and its potential impacts around the world.


Julie Brigham-Grette moderated the panel, which included the following:

  • John Farrell of USARC
  • Steve Feldgus, Democratic staff for the House Natural Resources Committee
  • Julie Gourley, Senior Arctic Official
  • Laurie Geller, Study Director for Arctic Matters


Saying it is “exciting to see how many agencies are interested in the Arctic,” Brigham-Grette made positive remarks about the vast amount of interagency activity on Arctic policy.


Farrell emphasized the Arctic Council is not a negotiating body. He said the U.S. will submit its report on black carbon and methane emissions first to show initiative. He added that a tool is needed to monitor the physical changes in the environment, such as mapping species migration and ship routes. From the audience, Hinzman offered the Arctic Freshwater Synthesis as a deliverable for the U.S. chairmanship.


Panelists also discussed prioritizing ocean acidification and collaborating with Russia on research, public outreach, Arctic peoples’ economic development, mental health, and telecommunications.


Amanda Staudt presented the Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA) as a groundbreaking assessment to improve the way scientific information is provided to policy makers. Case study areas—including an assessment of Arctic shipping potential—are well along and will be modeled after the U.S. Climate Assessment.


Feldgus, after years with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and Shell’s monitoring program, said that on Capitol Hill the Arctic is not seen “as one whole” and that Congress is not motivated by any personal attachment to Arctic issues.


Feldgus said climate change is not widely understood in Congress. In order to change this, information related to climate change and the Arctic needs to be distilled in palatable and relevant ways.


“The scientific and political communities look at climate change from two completely different perspectives,” Feldgus said. As the political community needs to look more at the scientific research that is being produced, the scientific community also needs to pay attention to climate change economic impacts.


Rapid Change at the Poles


Because the rapid change in the Polar Regions can have big consequences for global society, some have suggested that the scientific community must consider how to respond to such changes. The panelists at the rapid change session considered the following questions:

  • Are there feasible interventions that could slow or stop any of the changes taking place?
  • Are any of these changes potentially reversible?


This session also considered whether these questions could lead to an NRC workshop or study (building upon the recent NRC Climate Intervention reports).


Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Development at the Department of State, moderated the discussion among the following panelists:

  • Sridhar Anandakrishnan of Pennsylvania State University
  • Waleed Abdalati of the University of Colorado-Boulder
  • Phil Rasch of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (via teleconference)
  • Ted Schuur of Northern Arizona University


Abdalati said climate intervention is a part of a portfolio of climate responses and any intervention should be performed by a body of scientific researchers that is more substantive than what is available currently.


He also commented on the deployment of any climate mitigation measures, and was not hopeful this would occur unless there was a climate emergency such as ice sheet destabilization.


Abdalati added that response procedures are what drive the analysis procedures and the climate agenda, and, on the research side, vast differences in the research needs of various classes of climate intervention are now apparent.

When translating scientific studies to policy makers, Abdalati said agencies need to be briefed on specific outcomes. For instance, policy makers could take climate change interventions more seriously if they are presented with numbers. “On average, one American produces four pounds of garbage a day, and 110 pounds of carbon dioxide,” he said. Research should focus on how messy the situation has become, he suggested.


Schuur discussed challenges related to thawing permafrost. First, when forest fires burn through the organic topsoil layer and then begin burning the permafrost layer, any permafrost thawing that has been occurring due to warmer temperatures is speeded up.


Furthermore, thawing permafrost releases a higher concentration of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, consequently exacerbating climate change.


Schuur discussed the management opportunities that are related to the fire cycle, as rising permafrost temperatures are a trend in the boreal forest and interior Alaska. Fires in the high latitudes have been managed to some extent, but further management tools could be deployed to combat forest fires and thawing permafrost dilemma, he said.


Rasch discussed the role of stratospheric aerosols. He said recognizing the importance of clouds in climate modeling is crucial, but the current modeling systems are flawed. The aspects of the models that are not working adequately must be recognized and understood. Research efforts are recommended to be conducted along with climate intervention and climate mitigation strategies.


Polar Regions in the New Decadal Survey: Updates and Discussion


This session provided information about NRC’s planning process for these studies and how the PRB might contribute, such as measuring sea ice loss via acoustics, the Navy Optic Research Plan, and the Stratified Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic (SODA).


Waleed Abdalati moderated the discussion among th following panelists:

  • Michael Moloney, Space Studies Board Director
  • Jack Kaye, Associate Director for Research of the NASA Earth Science Division
  • Pablo Clemente-Colón, Chief Scientist at the U.S. National Ice Center, NOAA
  • Tim Newman, Program Coordinator Land Remote Sensing for U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)


Clemente-Colón discussed the NOAA-NASA interagency program Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). This mission is the latest generation of a U.S. polar-orbiting, non-geosynchronous operational environmental satellite system. Though the satellites provide full global coverage twice a day, the focus is on orbiting the polar environments.


Because the JPSS mission is to ensure a continuous series of global weather data and increase accurate weather predictions, Clemente-Colón described the JPSS data processing capabilities as designed to forecast severe weather and assess environmental hazards, all with the goal of securing a more weather ready nation.


Newman spoke via teleconference about the USGS expectations for the Decadal Survey, and that the USGS’s data from its Landsat satellite images is the primary science agency of the DOI, alongside data produced in collaboration with NASA using other satellite technologies.


Newman described the Earth Observation Assessment (EOA)—supported by the White House OSTP—that evaluates the nation’s earth observation capabilities every three years.


The first EOA in 2012 evaluated 362 observing systems and surveys, designating 145 as “high impact.” The second EOA is scheduled to be completed by June 2016 and will include a snapshot of the current national observing system portfolio, a baseline assessment of the current portfolio, and a recommended portfolio for individual Societal Benefit Areas (SBA) and the overall government.


Newman also discussed USGS’s Landsat 8, which carries two push-broom instruments: the Operational Land Imager (OLI), and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). Two new spectral bands of the OLI enhance prior Landsat instruments, one of which is a new infrared channel (band 9) which improves cirrus cloud contamination detection. A new Quality Assurance band is also included with each data product, providing information on the presence of features such as clouds, water, and snow.


The second instrument, Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS), improves signal-to-noise (SNR) radiometric performance, resulting in better characterization of bright land cover, enabling better documentation of ice state and condition. The enhanced capabilities of the TIRS also allowed it to detect the coldest spot on the earth.


Newman also discussed the USGS’s Essential Climate Variable (ECV) snow covered area (SCA) monitoring project. The objective of this project was to develop a methodology to produce daily high spatial resolution SCA time series datasets. He said the project combined daily imagery from a moderate resolution sensor with historical data from a Landsat-derived higher spatial resolution sensor. By manipulating data from the two sensors, it allowed for the possibility of constructing a daily high spatial resolution SCA time series dataset. The methodology to produce this product was developed with the end-users in mind, including hydrologists, climatologists, ecologists, etc.


Brigham-Grette commented how Clemente-Colón and Newman’s reports of scientific advancements in satellite observation capabilities will be very critical in the future given predictions that the earth will be ice-free by 2028.


Brigham-Grette added that according to an analysis of the longest terrestrial sediment core ever collected in the Arctic, the region was very warm about 3.5 million years ago with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that were not much higher than today’s. This study concluded that relatively small fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels can have a major influence on the Arctic climate, and that sediment core analyses assessing past conditions could be helpful in modeling future climate projections and their implications for the Arctic environment.


Day Two:  June 3


IASC and SCAR updates


Dr. Larry Hinzman discussed the Arctic Observing Summit Week (ASSW) 2015 outcomes, specifically the International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Science (ISAR-4) and the Integrating Arctic Research Program (ICARP-3).


Hinzman noted the potential secretariat issues with the ISAR-4, as Germany has served for the past four or five years, and plans to continue serving for the next two years. The U.S. is under pressure to step up as secretary following Germany’s term.


He also discussed ICARP-3, which will be held in 2016 with the goal of mapping out where research efforts should be focused over the next decade. The plans that resulted 10 years ago from ICARP-2 were mostly successfully implemented. The plans for ICARP-3 will be released over the next couple of months.


Switching topics, Hinzman announced the tentative scheduled events and asked for board member input on more ideas for the 2016 ASSW, planned for March in Fairbanks, Alaska.


From the audience, Jennifer Francis suggested high level TED Talks with the opportunity for questions. Several board members had ideas about the context of these TED Talks.


Also in the audience, Betsey Baker, Professor and Counsel to the Dean for Alaska Programs at the University of Washington School of Law, suggested a presentation on a short series of success stories where policy makers have set priorities and achieved results at the local, state, national and global levels.


Another event suggested was a local contingency planning workshop where policy makers create scenarios where they answer questions based on the best information from the scientific community.


Pomerance added that this type of workshop could be helpful in making the scientific community frame their research in a way that is relevant for policy makers. One example could be a discussion about how to relocate the coastal Alaskan communities where houses and facilities are being destroyed by erosion.


“Nobody has figured out how to finance their movement [to new locations],” Pomerance said. “It could be really interesting if you got speakers to talk about local and global strategies and how to provoke thinking about various strategies.”


Another suggestion for ASSW 2016 was a tentative proposal for a joint session between PRB, USARC, and other U.S., EU and Canadian research agencies to expand shared understanding of roles and missions in order to encourage cooperation among the nations.


Following this discussion, the remainder of the PRB meeting culminated in a closed session.