Recently, I spent a few days with 150 other science experts to grapple with the changes occurring in the Arctic in a meeting called the Arctic Observing Summit. We were trying to answer a simple question, “who is monitoring the Arctic?” Those simple questions are sometimes the most difficult, as is the case with this one.

We’ll get around to the answer, but the reason for the question is also important to note. There is a trend toward climate warming on Earth, and there are signs that the effect is amplified in the Arctic. This is another, serious, example that shows the connectivity of the systems of life on Earth, and that our development as a species can cause changes everywhere.

A waterscape surrounded by hills.
Ice-free season in the eastern High Arctic. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham

The change to the northern reaches of our world plucks the attention of many interests. Scientists who measure things over long periods of time are noticing that ice is disappearing at rapid rates. This thawing results in more open water on the ocean and for longer periods, smaller glaciers, higher sea levels, and less permafrost.

These dynamics cause a huge cascade of other physical and biological consequences. There are some strong correlations between these warming trends and extreme weather. There are also seasonal marine ecosystems that are dependent upon the presence of sea ice.

Another inescapable consequence is our cultural imperative to find economic efficiency and gain in these massive shifts. There will be intense searches for resources that are now more accessible, and the use of new shipping routes to further our movement of raw materials across the globe.

Now to answer the question we start with a quote from the sage for the natural world, Edward Wilson, who said, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”1

An eelpout (Lycodes mucosus).
This eelpout (Lycodes mucosus) is a common fish in the Arctic. It lives on the bottom of the sea. Image: Mark Graham © Mark Graham

This is certainly the case when it comes to the Arctic, because there are many, many people, organizations and governments monitoring the Arctic. What is missing is a comprehensive, freely accessible way to integrate the data, the synthetizing step that Wilson talks about. Such a tool would satisfy the needs of all Arctic nations and stakeholders, and build upon current initiatives like the Arctic Data Explorer.

The types of observations range from air temperature and wind speed to permafrost depth, to the nesting sites for ivory gull and the number of bowhead whales hunted. These observations are done by humans, but more and more they are being done by machines: satellites that circle the Earth and send us images, thousands of robots that glide through the ocean recording physical and chemical data, and geographical positioning devices that tell us about the movements of birds and mammals.

A torpedo-shaped robot underwater.
A robot submarine records data in an ocean. Image: Yannlepage © Yannlepage

The Arctic Council recognized this as a priority in 2007 when it sanctioned the Sustaining Arctic Observing Network (SAON). Since then, SAON has gathered experts to understand the landscape of Arctic observations, has been resourcefully gaining support for making observations, and is beginning the daunting task of synthesizing, finding any gaps in the network and in using the new tools for wise decisions in the changing future.

1 Wilson, Edward O. (1999). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Toronto, Canada: Random House, p. 294.