Researchers in the Arctic
Researchers in the Arctic

A roadmap towards sustained observing in the Arctic

The Arctic is undergoing rapid change. In order to understand the effects on ecological and socio-economic systems, as well as to implement mitigation and adaptation measures, sustained and holistic observations are vital. Thus, the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks is developing a Roadmap for Arctic Observing and Data Systems. And surprisingly, the current pandemic could act as a catalysator for enhancing local observation capacities.

The Arctic is changing. Its landscapes and seascapes, its flora and fauna, and its social systems, are undergoing profound transformations, challenging the Arctic way of life as we know it. Thus, it is imperative to enhance our knowledge of a changing reality in order to understand its implications – both locally and globally.

Observations and their deriving data can support important decisions on mitigating actions and adaptive responses. Yet, the observational networks in the far North are woefully underdeveloped, says Dr. Sandy Starkweather, Executive Director for the US Arctic Observing Network.

“Global networks achieve remarkable coverage all over the planet but not in the Arctic. There are two reasons for that: One, Arctic specific processes and conditions, such as ice cover, seasonal darkness, extremes of cold and stratification, sensitive and tightly coupled systems, these combined hamper the use of standard technology and drive up costs. And second, we have also seen that the value proposition for Arctic observations, especially when viewed through the lens of global concerns, fails to compel the necessary funding levels for Arctic observing systems”, Sandy Starkweather stated in her keynote address at the Arctic Observing Summit 2020 – a virtual address at a conference that was moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandy Starkweather is chairing the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON), a joint initiative of the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). SAON aims at strengthening multinational engagement in pan-Arctic observing and monitoring of Arctic environmental change. In its ten year strategic plan, the network outlines three goals: ensuring sustainability of Arctic observing; promoting free and ethically open access to all Arctic observational data; and creating a roadmap to a well-integrated Arctic Observing System.

“SAON’s Roadmap for Arctic Observing and Data Systems, short: ROADS, is built upon a holistic benefit analysis. It takes the environmental, economic, and social domains into account in which services, operations, and research provide societal benefit”, Sandy Starkweather explains.

Maybe surprisingly, the current global health crisis, could act as a catalysator to enhance cooperation and co-creating with local stake- and rightsholders.

To implement this ambitious roadmap, the active involvement of Indigenous peoples and local communities is essential. Local and Indigenous organizations and networks are able to fill existing observation gaps, especially gaps in winter observations, and to add to our understanding of the Arctic system as a whole. Maybe surprisingly, the current global health crisis, could act as a catalysator to enhance cooperation and co-creating with local stake- and rightsholders.

As the covid-19 outbreak threatens to interrupt Arctic observations and time series, the statement of this year’s Arctic Observing Summit urges for immediate action in order to minimize the loss of important data and the information we can derive from them. One solution is an enhanced emphasis of local observation capacities. As the statement reads: “In light of the current global circumstances AOS 2020 participants call for an international effort that advances and supports the development of partnerships which allow Arctic Indigenous communities to draw on their strengths to sustain both Indigenous- and scientific-observing efforts. The combination of observations that address Indigenous communities’ priorities and operational needs, with those helping maintain critical research time series deserve particular attention.”

SAON has acknowledged this need – long before the health crisis. A guiding principle of the ROADS process is therefore that the roadmap must include funding for Indigenous people’s equitable partnerships and active participation. Furthermore, it should ensure to complement and integrate the planning approaches of already existing regional and global observing efforts.

“We currently face a diffusion of planning, implementation, and data assets across a complex multiplicity of Arctic organizations. It’s like an Arctic alphabet soup and currently we lack the ability to link these together in a meaningful way”, Sandy Starkweather says.

So, where will the ROADS process bring us? Sandy Starkweather outlined three goals in her address at the Arctic Observing Summit:

  • Towards a clear set of observing targets with well-defined benefits
  • Towards robust, collaborative communities of practice to define & integrate observing system best practices and requirements
  • Towards pan-Arctic implementation strategies resulting in integrated, co-designed, sustained observations and accessible data and information streams.

Besides the active participation of local communities and Indigenous peoples, Sandy Starkweather also emphasizes the important role another actor plays in achieving these goals: “The engagement of Arctic Council and its Working Groups in the ROADS process is essential. Each Working Group is entitled to a seat on the SAON Board. They are in a great position to lead on topics that are of high interest for ongoing and future observations in the Arctic, like for example microplastics.”

By the 2022 Arctic Observing Summit (AOS) meeting Tromsø, Norway, SAON plans to have established the first aspects of its Roadmap for Arctic Observing and Data Systems, in collaboration with the AOS. The process will proceed step-wise through 2026, at which point it envisions that all of the major aspects of the needed observing network will be unified into a coherent and holistic strategy in support of societal benefit. On the top of the agenda for the remaining two years is the development of recommendations for future Arctic observational capacities. This includes recommendations for closing gaps or extensions to the integrated Arctic-observing system, as well as engaging potential operators and funding agencies to respond to the gaps and to sustain a well-integrated long-term observing capacity.

The Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) is a joint initiative of the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) that aims to strengthen multinational engagement in pan-Arctic observing and monitoring of Arctic environmental change. The SAON process was established in 2011 at the Seventh Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council (AC) via the Nuuk Declaration and engages countries, organizations and observing networks in the effort to maximize Arctic observing capabilities.

SAON's vision is to foster a connected, collaborative, and comprehensive long-term pan-Arctic Observing System that serves societal needs. SAON’s mission is to facilitate, coordinate, and advocate for the pan-Arctic Observing System and to mobilize the support needed to sustain it.

Effective implementation of SAON requires partnerships. Such partnerships include observing networks, collaborations with policy-makers at all levels, academia, civil society and the private sector, as well as engagement from other multilateral/international groups: