Research

Arctic Research

Understanding the Arctic As A System

The International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is an international focal point for synthesis of our understanding of the Arctic system and the application of this understanding to prediction of the evolution of the Arctic system over the next century. Our goal is to reduce the uncertainty in predictions of Arctic change. In order to do so, we must understand ongoing changes. Understanding, in turn, requires attribution in terms of characterizing and quantifying linkages among system components. IARC’s strategy for synthesizing our understanding and predictive capabilities is to entrain the international Arctic research community into activities that are essential for scientific progress and that are not amenable to support through conventional funding channels. We have strived to conduct process studies and collect field measurements that may provide the understanding needed to develop and validate models. Examples include quantifying the variability in distribution, age structure, and thickness of perennial sea ice. This understanding is central to the development of coupled models of atmospheric dynamics, oceanic circulation, and sea ice degradation and export. The physical and biological controls of carbon fluxes are at the core of global change, yet quantifying methane and CO2 fluxes in the Arctic and assessing their feedbacks are among the greatest challenges facing the Arctic research community. Documenting physical changes in the climate will contribute nothing to our understanding if we do not synthesize those observations into higher-level analyses of ecosystem responses. All of these activities are key components of the Arctic system and will provide the tools and understanding needed to predict the system level responses to a changing climate.

The faculty, staff, and students of International Arctic Research Center are pleased to continue our ongoing collaborations with our colleagues from across the U.S. and around the world, and we look forward to increased scientific exchanges and cooperation. Through collaborations with Arctic researchers throughout the world, we can achieve our goal of developing a quantitative understanding of the Arctic System.

Arctic System Science

The Arctic system is composed of a highly complex interplay of physical, chemical, biological and social processes interacting and changing daily. In the last 50 years, we have seen a wide range of changes. Many of these changes were evident since the mid-1970s; however, it is quite likely that these changes began or were initiated early in the 20th Century, prior to extensive observational records in Arctic regions. Some of the changes, like later freeze-up and earlier break-up of Arctic rivers and lakes, mirror Arctic-wide and even global increases in air temperature. Regardless of the driving forces, the combined observations and documentation suggest that the Arctic system may be entering a state not seen before in historic times. The complex interplay of physical, chemical, biological and social processes interact to such a degree that it is not possible to understand future trends without developing more fully holistic perspectives of the complete system.

A central objective of IARC research is to reduce uncertainty in predictions of future climate. By taking a themed approach to synthesis of complex Arctic science, IARC is able to make connections that are bringing us toward this goal.

Understanding the Arctic as a System

The Arctic System may be represented by a complex network of process interactions, interdependent feedbacks and dramatic thresholds. This schematic demonstrates the interconnections among system components and emphasizes that important changes in one component may influence numerous other parts of the system. In order to accurately predict how the Arctic System will evolve with a changing climate, it is necessary to quantify the linkages and feedbacks among system components (Study of Environmental Change [SEARCH, 2005]). 

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