Consortium for Ocean Leadership Arctic Science Forum: Predicting and Preparing for a Changing Arctic

March 4, 2015 – Washington, DC
Sherri Goodman, the President of Ocean Leadership, prefaced the forum with President Obama’s Executive Order from this January, “Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic.” This quote describes the link between ocean science and critical national priorities:
“The Arctic has critical long-term strategic, ecological, cultural, and economic value, and it is imperative that we continue to protect our national interests in the region, which include: national defense; sovereign rights and responsibilities; maritime safety; energy and economic benefits; environmental stewardship; promotion of science and research; and preservation of the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea as reflected in international law.”
The COL Arctic Science Forum tries to answer questions about how to predict environmental changes in the Arctic (i.e., sea ice content, carbon levels, permafrost melting, sea ice melting and movement, changes in sea routes), how the U.S. can develop, operate and maintain infrastructure safely in the Arctic, why this matters for lower latitudes and how the Arctic impacts all Americans.
Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC)
In her address to kick off the forum, Fran Ulmer highlighted the challenge of bringing the scientific view of the Arctic to non-Arctic people. With the Arctic increasingly in the news and more attention drawn to development, the opening of Arctic shipping routes and extreme weather, more of the U.S. is looking to the Arctic as a region of major influence.
With the U.S. assuming the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015-2017, the nation has the opportunity for a “teachable moment” on Arctic science, describing in a coherent way why the
Arctic matters, which is one of USARC’s major missions.

  • Energy
    • Arctic is home to as much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% undiscovered natural gas, and 20% undiscovered liquefied natural gas.
    • The international community is turning to the Arctic for development and exploration, though it is one of the most expensive regions in which to operate.
    • Oil spills in ice-covered waters are risky and scientists are challenged to find a safe exploration method in this unique environment.
  • Fisheries
    • Alaska commercial fishing is the largest private sector employer in the state.
    • Not enough is known about the Bering Sea’s fishing community.
    • With the current U.S. moratorium on commercial fishing above the Bering Strait, science has the potential to inform the public about what can be harvested responsibly.
    • Research can occur now about how ocean acidification can (and will) impact Alaska’s fisheries.
  • Federal Arctic Research Policy and Process
    • As USARC sets goals, the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, under the National Science Foundation, adopts, creates, and executes a research plan.
    • The White House, Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinate and review a research budget.
    • Congress authorizes and appropriates this budget to put USARC policies into action.
  • Arctic Council
    • Participants
      • Eight nations: Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and the United States
      • Six Permanent Participants: Arctic Athabaskan Council, Aleut International Association, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Saami Council
      • 20 observers, mostly non-governmental organizations
    • More of a forum for high level discussion than a governing body with a focus on sustainable development and environmental protection.
    • Provides a forum to negotiate agreements between the Arctic nations on issues such as maritime search and rescue and marine oil pollution preparedness and response.
    • The council does not adopt the agreements, but recommends them to the member national governments for adoption.
  • S. Chair of Arctic Council in April 2015
    • With the U.S. assuming the chairmanship, three themes are at hand with specific projects:
      • Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship.
      • Improving economic and living conditions for Arctic peoples.
      • Addressing impacts of climate change.
    • S. has two goals as chair:
      • Strengthen the Arctic Council by improving efficiency, effectiveness and utilization
      • Improve public diplomacy by informing the public about the importance of the Arctic, challenges faced by Arctic peoples, impacts of climate change on the Arctic and around the world, and reminding all Americans that the U.S. is an Arctic nation.
    • Ulmer concluded with the shared interests of Arctic nations including different facets of community resilience, safety, climate, and research.
    • The Daily Arctic Newsletter prepared by USARC can be subscribed to at

Panel: Forecasting a Changing Arctic
The first panel discussed the state of knowledge in predicting the occurrence of major changes in the Arctic, as well as identified research and observational gaps.
The panel was moderated by Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire with the following speakers and presentations:

  • Cecilia Bitz, University of Washington, Department of Atmospheric Sciences: “Arctic Sea Ice and Climate”
  • Fiamma Straneo, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: “Melting of Arctic Land Ice”
  • Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science: “Nutrient Carbon Freshwater Cycling and Changes in the Pacific Arctic”
  • Kevin Schaefer, National Snow and Ice Data Center: “Carbon Emissions from Thawing Permafrost”
  • Charles “Kolo” Rathburn, Professional Staff Member Majority Office, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
  • The vast majority of this panel’s key points were aimed toward the scientific community in attendance, and focused on the Arctic’s changing climates.

Highlights include:

  • Role of melting sea ice on coastal erosion, storm surges, permafrost thaw.
    • Arctic is seeing less multi-year ice (at least two years old) and more new ice.
    • What are consequences of younger, thinner ice? Thin ice is a poor insulator, especially before snow builds up, and it increases warming.
    • Sea ice helps keep the poles cool. Warming causes ice to retreat, allowing more heat and sunlight to be absorbed into the ocean, thereby accelerating further warming.
    • Surface air temperature trend from 1965-2014 is a rise of five degrees Celsius in the Arctic, which is two to three times greater than global mean.
  • Melting land ice causes infrastructure and navigational hardships.
    • Glacier changes in the Arctic are a global issue. Improved predictions require dedicated resources, scientific coordination, international collaboration and sustained measurements to inform models.
    • In order to improve the ability to forecast, need dedicated resources. The Arctic has a lot of strategic plans and implementation plans, but they have not translated into new resources. Federal agencies that fund scientific research are overstretched and short on resources.
    • Need scientific collaboration especially at international level.
    • Remind people of the need for sustained measurements and how that helps with forecasting
  • Permafrost thawing wreaks havoc on infrastructure.
    • Ice changes to water which changes to mud. Infrastructure and housing impacted, a major problem in Alaska.
    • Thawing permafrost impacts global climate because of the 1,700 gigatons of carbon stored in permafrost; twice as much carbon is frozen in permafrost—in the form of frozen organic matter—than is present in the atmosphere today.
    • Thawing permafrost and its organic matter will release more CO2 and methane, and this, along with fossil fuel use, accelerates warming.
  • Appropriations for Arctic research.
    • The Senate Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee is still reviewing the President’s “extremely generous” budget request for the coming fiscal year.
    • Requests include NOAA Arctic spill response and ocean acidification research.
    • New programs saw significant increases while longstanding programs in NOAA remained flat-funded, not even adjusted for inflation.
      • The flat-funded programs include hydrographic surveys, charting, mapping, and other programs with bipartisan support.
    • While writing the FY16 appropriations bill, the subcommittee must manage the expectations of those who are optimistic about the President’s request, as well as look at support for the base programs and remember the constraints of sequestration.

Panel: Science Needs for Arctic Operations
The next panel focused on the need for scientific research in oil and gas development, U.S. Coast Guard and Navy operations, shipbuilding and infrastructure engineering, and fisheries management.
Panelists included:

  • Erik Milito, American Petroleum Institute
  • Gary Rasicot, U.S. Coast Guard, Director of Marine Transportation Systems
  • RADM Jonathan White, U.S. Navy
  • RADM Craig Bone (Ret.), American Bureau of Shipping
  • David Benton, Alaska Seafood Industry, USARC Commissioner


  • Oil and gas development in the Arctic is promising frontier.
    • Need to tailor development to the Arctic: mitigation, operations, technology, etc.
    • Open water season in Alaska is July-October, a limited window.
    • Looking to Arctic for energy needs with a balanced approach toward energy production.
    • Demand for energy has increased by 52%, meaning more demand for offshore drilling. The entire Arctic is estimated to hold 90 billion barrels of oil.
    • Trans-Alaska Pipeline System shipped two million barrels a day in 1988, now 500,000 a day.
    • National security needs were five million a day in 2009 and now over nine million a day. Needs are climbing and imports are down.
    • Strategically, the U.S. is in a different position because of oil/gas production.
    • To maintain status as energy superpower, continue to produce oil and gas at home, and look to the Arctic and shale.
    • Lots of oil off Canada shores; Arctic technology developed in Canada can be used in U.S. Arctic.
  • S. Coast Guard experiencing challenges in Arctic with lack of infrastructure.
    • Need science for radar detection, anomalies for being close to North Pole, data management, how to recruit workers from small Native villages.
    • Consortium of coast guards in other Arctic nations is administered through the Arctic Council to formulate oil spill response and prevention.
    • Need to find a way to cooperate and coordinate with Russian coast guard.
    • Russia is rapidly building icebreakers to support domestic activity during the shorter ice season. The Russians have over 14 icebreakers with multipurpose salvage and rescue capabilities.
    • Northern Sea Route operated by and around Russia presents national security concerns.
    • Northwest Passage through Canada presents different challenges: more severe ice, no infrastructure, no guaranteed icebreaker support, and rapidly changing weather conditions. Ships need to be capable of withstanding polar ice conditions.
  • Not enough is known about viability of Arctic fisheries.
  • Arctic fishery research needs to focus on species, the changing ecosystem, and life history characteristics to determine the level of sustainable harvesting, the impact of harvesting on other organisms, and how to conduct a fishery responsibility and economically efficient.
  • Ongoing debate about whether or not commercial stocks of fish and shellfish in the central Arctic Ocean would be economically viable, and whether there should be any commercial fisheries there.
  • Need info on both sides of the Russia-U.S. maritime boundary to figure out the fishery questions. The U.S. needs to get Russian colleagues interested in joint research to look at fisheries and ecosystem questions.
  • China and Japan and Korea are engaged in research and all have assets. China interested in partnering with U.S. on fishery research.

Dr. Frances Cordova, Director of National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a federal agency that provides $100 million annual funding for Arctic science, and has contributed to basic research in the Arctic for over 40 years. The NSF works with the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure cost effective access to vessels, and owns and maintains its own summit station in Greenland. Dr. Cordova largely reiterated many of the priorities USARC Chair Ulmer outlined along with the need for more research, as discussed above.
Senate Arctic Caucus Co-Chairs
On the same day of the forum, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) announced the formation of the Senate Arctic Caucus.
Highlights from Sen. Murkowski’s address:

  • Watching Russia closely. Are we prepared for a potential Russian oil spill? No, we’re not. Any pollutants from Russia would reach Alaska’s shores.
  • The Arctic sustains Alaska, drives the economy. We need to manage with stewardship inherent to relying on its bounty. Caring for the environment is not inconsistent with addressing energy security and development.
  • Russia and Canada continue with aggressive security and commercial advancements. Need to create jobs, economic growth.
  • Non-Arctic nations are embracing opportunities with diminished polar sea ice.
  • Science advances are necessary for U.S. to harness opportunities in the Arctic
    • Need accurate data for charting the Arctic. Sen. Murkowski is drafting a bill on this issue; more information to come.
  • Need accurate charts, more buoys, and ice monitoring.
  • Need to assess accuracy of Arctic mapping and forecasting, and analyze the gaps.
  • S. needs to make more icebreakers a priority.
    • Icebreakers are the measuring stick of Arctic investment. U.S. only has the HEALY operating in U.S. waters.
    • POLARSTAR is the only U.S. heavy icebreaker, but is on contract for the next five years in Antarctica, and won’t be in the Arctic at all.
    • POLARSTAR is on second life. In six to eight years it will be retired.
    • POLARSEA is in Seattle in deteriorating condition.
    • The U.S. needs $1 billion for a new icebreaker. Ten years required to build a new one. USCG only allocated $15 million for new planning and design; PB16 requested another $4 million.
    • Investment in the Arctic is not about Alaska earmarks. These are national assets and an icebreaker is a national asset.
    • Russia has 27 icebreakers. China has a second one under construction with six planned. India is considering building one, too.
  • Bering Strait transit rose dramatically in 2008-12, with over 1,000 vessels per year passing through the Strait by 2080.
  • We need to acknowledge and consult the people who live, work and raise their families in the Arctic; four million people have been living, hunting and fishing there for thousands of years.

Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine who caucuses with the Senate’s Democratic minority, is the co-chair for the Senate Arctic Caucus. Highlights from his speech include:
Eastport, Maine, is closest U.S. port to Asia if/when the Northwest Passage opens:
Would take weeks of less time to get to Asia through the Northwest Passage than the Panama Canal.
Eastport Harbor in Maine is the nation’s deepest port at 65 feet, a major opportunity for shippers.
UN Law of the Sea treaty needs to be ratified because it provides guidance for international decisions.
Need to improve infrastructure such as icebreakers, but also need to map/chart the Arctic oceans.
Levels of tensions with Russia are rising, increasing confrontation and competition. Russia is better equipped to deal with the Arctic region. The U.S. needs to catch up.
Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Chair of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee
Established by President Obama’s “Executive Order to Enhance Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic” (signed Jan. 21st, 2015), the Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) provides guidance to federal departments and agencies to coordinate federal Arctic policies with those of the State of Alaska, Alaska Native tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and private and nonprofit sectors. Dr. Holdren chairs the AESC.
Highlights from Dr. Holdren’s speech:

  • S. national interests in the Arctic should closely consider the rights and guidance of Arctic indigenous peoples.
  • Summer Arctic sea ice history and future: According to projections, sea ice could nearly disappear by the end of the century.
  • Shrinking sea ice extent and reduced thickness have plenty of implications for maritime navigation:
    • Expands access to seabed resources.
    • Creates need for new protocols, procedures and infrastructure for the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy.
    • Creates existential threats to ice-dependent creatures.
    • Increases risks to coastal communities and infrastructure.
    • Thawing permafrost increases the vulnerability to wildfires as plant cover is altered.
  • Arctic GEOTRACES program:
    • International plan for USCG HEALY to cruise around the Arctic with Canada and Germany in 2015-2016.
    • International GEOTRACES program is already providing unprecedented view of distribution of trace elements and isotopes. It’s shedding new light on key oceanic processes and illuminating areas for future targeted studies.
  • What can AESC accomplish?
    • Help shape and reconcile Arctic priorities.
    • Promote coordinated implementation and evaluation.
    • Improve coherence of engagement with State of Alaska and Alaska Native communities.
    • Support U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
    • Understand the overlaps, gaps, and what we can do about priorities.

Panel: Why the Arctic Matters to the Lower-48
The final panel discussed how changes in the Arctic are impacting communities and regions beyond the immediate Arctic region, how to translate these concerns into resonating messages that have meaning to Lower 48 residents, and engage stakeholders who otherwise are not aware that they have a stake in the Arctic. This panel was moderated by Mark Abbott of Oregon State University.
Panelists and presentations included the following:

  • Jim Overland, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory: “Arctic Influence on Mid-Latitude Extreme Events”
  • Dustin Whalen, Canadian Geological Survey: “Coastal Zone Impacts”
  • Greg O’Corry-Crowe, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Florida Atlantic University: “Migrating Species”
  • Steve Feldgus, House Natural Resources Committee Minority, Professional Staff Member


  • More attention has turned to the Arctic because of the changing weather patterns.
    • As noted earlier, sea ice melting is causing the ocean to reabsorb (rather than deflect) the sun’s energy, thereby accelerating warming and melting ice.
    • The “polar vortex” of west-to-east is pushing Arctic winds to the Lower 48 states.
    • In last five years, there have been six cases of the polar vortex where temperatures drop in Lower 48 and rise in the Arctic and Alaska.
    • Lack of ice in the sea means more open water, which creates more extreme storms and more damage to the Arctic coastline.
  • Arctic indigenous peoples are at ground zero of climate change.
    • Traditional knowledge and stories are part of the science and we need to incorporate them into the Arctic work we do and the messages we deliver to policymakers.
    • Arctic coastlines have been retreating at half a meter a year; the rate has doubled in the last 10 years.
  • Impacts in the immediate coastal zone are reaching beyond the Arctic.
    • Health and well-being:
      • Dissolving organic carbon from permafrost thawing changes the food chain and global carbon cycle.
      • The release of trapped methane gas from permafrost and sea ice increases the greenhouse effect.
      • Thawing of freshwater ice can alter marine species genetic makeup, existence, food chain, etc.
      • Migratory species evolution can increase risk of infectious diseases.
    • Security and socioeconomics:
      • With the increased need for infrastructure and land base camps, there may be a threat to the sovereignty of Arctic indigenous peoples.
      • This would threaten the way of life for indigenous people who have relied on land and sea for sustenance for thousands of years. As more people use the region’s resources, the makeup of the region will change drastically.
    • Industrial development:
      • Need more shore-based infrastructure for mining, oil and gas.
      • Need to build harbors and ports for the transportation of goods.
    • Loss of critical habitat from human development and coastal zone impacts:
      • Migratory species are directly impacted with the increased connectivity of high Arctic species integrating sub-Arctic species that now need to travel further north for breeding.
      • Some polar species are losing access to food, but have nowhere to go to find food. This impacts human subsistence.
    • Congressional perspective: Arctic priorities, Arctic Council not well understood outside of Alaska’s congressional delegation.
      • Alaska and Arctic have been in the news a lot lately, but non-Alaskans aren’t yet absorbing how the Arctic Council and policy decisions will impact them and their states.
      • The U.S. has a unique opportunity to push Arctic priorities to forefront of national attention with the Arctic Council chairmanship.
      • Advocacy should focus on why any congressman or senator is directly impacted by Arctic issues, how authorization and appropriations language can push Arctic priorities that impact them and their state, and how these issues fit into the national perspective.
      • Advocates should prepare one-pagers and boil down priorities into five minute presentations.

Jack Omelak, Alaska Nanuuq Commission
The Nanuuq Commission is focused on polar bear conservation and the polar bear impact on the Arctic ecosystem and Alaska Natives. Jack Omelak’s heartfelt speech focused on how resource management is really about human management.
International and domestic policies are setting the stage for the annual removal for polar bears based on future predictions of Alaska sea ice. No hard count of polar bears now exists, which is a key for resource management. Because of the disconnect between ideals and resource management from people who don’t understand the impact on subsistence food gatherers, policymakers are not taking that into consideration when considering the science that’s needed. In general, policymakers do not understand the ecosystems they are impacting.
Mr. Omelak encouraged scientists and advocates to convey the need and impact of Arctic scientific research in everyday language so individuals and communities can understand and rally around Arctic priorities—a common theme throughout the forum.

About The Author

Andrea Wagner